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Climate Change Tracker: Key Indian voices on the climate crisis

Climate change is heating up the global ocean. Alongside sea level rise, this means that rare extreme weather events, which would normally occur once every century, will now occur once every year.  (Photo: Getty Images)Premium
Climate change is heating up the global ocean. Alongside sea level rise, this means that rare extreme weather events, which would normally occur once every century, will now occur once every year. (Photo: Getty Images)

On the eve of Independence Day, climate science and policy experts talk about India's climate change risks and mitigation opportunities on the Mint Climate Change Tracker podcast

“This is the decade of decision. The window is narrow and it’s closing very rapidly. I think that if we don’t take action in these five to six years, we might just miss the bus. I don’t even want to think about that scenario." It’s sobering to hear an environmental scientist working with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says these words. Minal Pathak, who’s also a faculty member at the Ahmedabad University, where she helps coordinate the Global Centre for Environment and Energy, was speaking to me about climate change for my weekly podcast, the Mint Climate Change Tracker, last week. We spoke on a variety of subjects, from climate change and cities to climate justice. “We can’t afford to say development first or climate change first," she said, “we have to find solutions that take both into account, and I think not doing enough would just exacerbate the existing inequalities."

To follow climate change as a subject can be overwhelming. The sheer scale of the problem can be nerve wracking. Yet, despite a pandemic ravaging the world, climate change remains the biggest existential crisis facing humanity today. Acknowledging this fact, Mint Lounge began a weekly column, called the Climate Change Tracker, exactly a year ago. Later, in November 2019, came the podcast, hosted by HT Smartcast, to talk about the perils of climate change.

In that first installment of the column a year ago, I wrote about India’s variable monsoon rainfall. Earlier this week, I wrote about the monsoon again. I had to, because we're seeing the same pattern of variable rainfall being played out again. This is exactly how climate change works. The same, previously anomalous, shocks keep recurring, year after year. After a while, the anomalous becomes the new normal. Monsoon rainfall variability, that is, long periods of dry spells, punctuated by sudden, violent cloudbursts, are becoming more and more common with each passing year.

According to India’s first ever official climate change assessment, released by the Ministry of Earth Sciences in June, monsoon precipitation has decreased by 6% between 1951 and 2018. So, while overall rainfall has been decreasing, extreme precipitation events, that cause landslides and floods, are increasing. Late last month, on the podcast, I asked climatologist Chirag Dhara, one of the writers of the assessment, about aspects of climate change impacts on India that are cause him concern.

Due to the effects of climate change, Indian monsoon rainfall is becoming more erratic every year. (Photo: Getty Images)
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Due to the effects of climate change, Indian monsoon rainfall is becoming more erratic every year. (Photo: Getty Images)

“I think the areas of concern are temperature and precipitation extremes," he said. “You know, change in average, it’s easier to adapt to that than changes in extremes. A longer or more intense heatwave, or a greater fraction of the rainfall coming down as intense rain, rather than more uniformly spread out rain, these are the aspects which are of grave concern."

One of the pleasures of hosting the podcast, is that I get to interact with some of the most important voices in the climate change conversation in India in an informal setting. These aren’t really interviews, but chats. Extremely enlightening ones. Take the conversation I had with climate scientist Roxy Mathew Koll in the aftermath of the devastation caused by cyclone Amphan. He told me how an unnaturally warm Bay of Bengal, riding on a spell of marine heatwaves due to global warming trends, supercharged Amphan from a Category 1 storm to a Category 5 storm, with windspeeds of 250 kmph almost overnight.

Satellite image of super cyclone Amphan over the Bay of Bengal.
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Satellite image of super cyclone Amphan over the Bay of Bengal.

“Cyclones keep evolving based on where the warm waters are. We observed some of the highest surface temperatures recorded by weather buoys installed in the Bay of Bengal, with unprecedented values of 32-34 degrees Celsius, just before the cyclone," he said. What was even more fascinating to hear was Koll explain how the same heatwaves over the north Indian Ocean, had caused the bleaching of coral reefs in the Gulf of Munnar, and had in part triggered the locust swarm that invaded western and central India earlier this year, coming all the way from Africa and the Arabian peninsula.

Click here to listen to the latest episode of the Mint Climate Change Tracker podcast, hosted by Bibek Bhattacharya.

Conversations on climate change not only involve the science, but also policy. After all, it is policy that will help keep fossil fuels such as coal and oil in the ground and facilitate the transition of India’s energy economy to one based on clean and renewable energy. The country has a fairly ambitious goal when it comes to generating non fossil fuel-based energy. A part of the country’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the goal to ensure that by 2030, 40% of its power generation come from Renewable Energy (RE). Moreover, in January, President Ram Nath Kovind declared that India aims to generate 450 GW of RE by 2030. Yet, coal accounts for 56% of India’s energy dependence, while RE accounts for a mere 3%. In June, the government started the auction process of 41 coal mines for commercial extraction by the private sector.

India needs to channel more funds towards renewable energy to meet climate change targets. (Photo: Alamy)
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India needs to channel more funds towards renewable energy to meet climate change targets. (Photo: Alamy)

On the podcast, I asked Arunabha Ghosh, the CEO of Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) if there is a possible way that a better balance could be found for India’s energy needs. “We have to now seriously look at industrial decarbonisation," he said. In part, Ghosh considered the question through the prism of jobs. The coal sector in India generates roughly 350,000 full-time equivalent jobs. This is often used as an argument against a transition to clean energy. Ghosh argued that clean energy actually creates far more jobs. “The employment coefficient for utility-scale solar (energy) is 3.45 compared to 1.5 for coal. For distributed solar, by rooftop, it is seven times that number. So when we look at less than 270,000 people in Coal India employed today, and we compare it with a potential of a workforce of 330,000 people with 160 GW of solar and wind, even more if you have distributed solar, even more if your renewable targets increase, I think the case becomes clearer and clearer."

In a separate conversation, I asked economist Ulka Kelkar, who directs the climate programme of World Resources Institute India (WRI India), what a clean energy economy would look like. She gave an example from WRI’s recent findings in rural Jharkhand. “Though there were power cuts, hospitals were able to use solar power in order to run ventilators during this coronavirus pandemic. That’s a very key pillar of how rural energy can be provided," she said.

India aims to generate 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030
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India aims to generate 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030

She then gave the example of the Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSME) sector. “There is an opportunity for MSMEs to be supported (financially) so that they become cleaner, more robust, and also save money in the form of saving energy." Kelkar also gave the example of electric vehicles (EV). “We’re investing a lot in EVs, but the electricity to run those vehicles should come, more and more from renewable energy. And that renewable energy, because it’s variable, it needs backing in the form of battery storage," she said. Her point was that all three examples would be a part of a larger change in perspective, an ecosystem of clean energy economy.

She also looked at the matter of employment creation during the transition to a low carbon economy. “When it comes to India, we need to look at the quality of the new green jobs being created. How can we re-skill people so that they’re able to access these new jobs? And how can we provide access to finance to provide new kinds of livelihoods? And the most important thing is not to just think of these people as men, but also as women, and make sure that the kinds of policies that we put in place, and the systems we create, are equally easy for women to access."

I posed a different question to climate change scholar and policy adviser Navroz K. Dubash, from the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. In light of the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, the fear is that environmental safeguards would be loosened to kickstart the pandemic-hit economy. Our conversation took place in early June. Dubash said that the reason that Indian businesses were not getting back to work or being unable to ramp up economic activity wasn’t because of environmental protections. Instead, it had everything to do with things like the availability of labour or sensible regulations on managing covid-19. “I think we have to remember that, yes, covid kills, and it causes a lot of destruction and stress to our healthcare system. But if you drop environmental safeguards, the resulting environmental harms also kill," he said. India sees 1.2 million premature deaths from air pollution every year, Dubash said, citing a Lancet report, but that fact is often crowded off the front pages. “By dropping environmental safeguards, you risk further contributing to precarious health and livelihoods."

Policy and science aside, the podcast has also looked at other aspects of the climate conversation, from how journalism in India should respond to climate change, to how we should talk to children about the climate crisis. On 15 August, Independence Day, the final episode of the second season of the Mint Climate Change Tracker will be broadcast. After that, there will be a short hiatus, before a third season rolls around, with more voices, Indian and international, providing fresh perspectives on climate change. Meanwhile the Climate Change Tracker column continues, looking at news of the climate crisis every week, just as it has done for the past one year.

Follow the Climate Change Tracker with #MintClimateTracker. Click here to listen to the latest episode of the Mint Climate Change Tracker podcast, hosted by Bibek Bhattacharya.

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