The growing threat of climate change in India4 min read . Updated: 21 Jul 2019, 08:28 PM IST
Extreme events that have an immediate impact and long-term effect of rising temperatures are endangering lives and crippling economic activity
This summer in Chennai, locals were praying for some rain; in Mumbai, people were reeling under a deluge. Long ago, these extreme disparities may have been solely blamed on nature’s vagaries, but now science has established that human-induced climate change is playing a major role. Climate change, caused by emissions from industries and other human activity, is making the world warmer, disrupting rainfall patterns and increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. No country is immune to these forces, but India is particularly vulnerable.
In 2018-19, as many as 2,400 Indians lost their lives to extreme weather events such as floods and cyclones, according to the environment ministry. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) says these events are increasing in both frequency and intensity Extreme events may be the most tangible and immediate impact of climate change, but another more long-term and equally dangerous effect is rising temperatures.
In India, according to IMD data released by the statistics ministry, average temperatures have increased by 0.6 degrees Celsius (° C) between 1901-10 and 2009-18. At an annual level, this may seem trivial, but projections deeper into the future paint a more alarming picture. For instance, the World Bank estimates that, if climate change continues unhindered, then average temperatures in India could reach as high as 29.1° C by the end of the century (up from 25.1° C currently).
As climate change becomes more palpable, some parts of India will be more affected. Comparing the average temperature in 2009-18 to the that in 1950-80 reveals that some pockets have already become much hotter. In parts of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the North-East, average temperature over the last decade has risen by nearly 1° C compared to the historical average in the 1950-80 period.
However, these areas won’t necessarily be the most affected by the change in temperature. A region’s vulnerability to temperature changes depends on several factors such as access to infrastructure (electricity, roads and water connections) and dependence on agriculture. According to the World Bank, central districts in India are the most vulnerable to climate change because they lack the infrastructure and are largely agrarian. Within this region, the districts in Maharasthra’s Vidarbha region are particularly susceptible to climate change damage. These are also the districts that are already under severe rural distress, having experienced the greatest number of farmer suicides in recent years. In these districts, the World Bank suggests that GDP per capita could shrink by nearly 10% by 2050 because of climate change.
A primary channel for the fall in incomes comes from climate change’s effects on farmers. The monsoon and suitable temperatures are critical inputs for farmers. Hotter weather and disrupted rainfall hurt crop yields and, consequently, their incomes. According to the 2017-18 Economic Survey, extreme temperatures and droughts (defined as temperatures or rainfall loss 40% greater than the median) shrink farmer incomes to the tune of 4-14% for key crops. Poorer farmers in regions with weaker infrastructure and less irrigation are most affected.
Farmers may be the most hurt by climate change, but other workers can be affected, too. In industries such as construction, high temperatures can make life miserable for workers and decrease their productivity. According to the International Labour Organization, the loss in productivity by 2030 because of heat stress could be the equivalent of India losing 34 million full-time jobs (up from 15 million in 1995)—the highest among the world’s most populous nations.
Rising temperatures, especially combined with humidity, can even be fatal. In his new book, Air: Pollution, Climate Change and India’s Choice Between Policy and Pretence, Dean Spears suggests that a newborn exposed to a week of hot and humid environment is much less likely to survive compared to one faced with a less hostile condition.
Climate change is also manifesting itself in the rise in extreme hot days (temperatures exceeding 35° C) across Indian cities. For instance, in Delhi, the number of days where temperatures have crossed 35° C has increased to 1,613 in this decade (2009-18) from 1,009 in 1959-68. Other major cities, such as Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, have also seen similar increases. In cities, which are epicentres of economic activity, rising temperatures can increase the spread of diseases and hurt productivity. And, in coastal cities, climate change-induced rising sea levels also pose an additional threat through more frequent flooding.
Few countries are likely to suffer from climate change to this extent. According to the Global Climate Risk Index released by Germany-based think tank, Germanwatch, India is the 14th most climate change-affected country in the world. This vulnerability, though, is not India’s own doing. In terms of global greenhouse gas emissions, India’s share remains significantly lower than those of both the US and China. In many ways, India is paying for the excesses of the developed world.
While much of India’s climate change crisis is a result of outside forces, there are domestic drivers as well. For instance, the country still overwhelmingly relies on coal for electricity, the emissions from which contribute significantly to climate change (68% of India’s emissions come from generating energy). Not only does this add to climate change, it also aggravates another major environmental problem: Air pollution. Similarly, inefficient agricultural policy encourages excessive water use, which exacerbates any climate change-induced monsoon variations. Thus, climate change is inextricably linked with India’s other environmental crises, which makes a case for a comprehensive plan to tackle it critical for our future.
This is the first of a five-part data journalism series on India's environmental crisis.