New Delhi: In a month when it has kicked off the auction of 41 coal fields for commercial mining, the government has released the first comprehensive national assessment of human-induced climate change and its impact on India, spelling out the consequences of persisting with a carbon-heavy path.

This report, prepared by an interdisciplinary group of Indian scientists for the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) and released June 14, 2020, said that in a best-case scenario (when steps are taken immediately to mitigate emissions), the country’s average temperature would rise by 2.4 degree Celsius (°C) by the end of this century. The scientific consensus is that warming must be limited to 1.5°C by 2099 to avoid the worst predictions.

Mitigation would require cutting back on the use of coal and other fossil fuels, reducing emissions from industries, increasing forest cover, promoting the sustainable use of land, facilitating energy efficiency in buildings and industries, and a shift to cleaner and sustainable transport.

However, its worst-case scenario (if India persists with a pollution-intensive approach) projects the average temperature rising by 4.4°C by 2099. This rise, over the next 80 years, represents a five-fold increase over the rate at which India’s average temperature has risen in the past 100-odd years.

India’s increasing levels of human-induced warming can be traced back to development choices that include rapidly opening up ecologically-sensitive areas such as forests and coasts for development and industrial projects and relying on polluting fossil fuels, as IndiaSpend reports in its latest series Environment Undone.

“In the absence of rapid, informed and far-reaching mitigation and adaptation measures, the impacts of climate change are likely to pose profound challenges to sustaining the country’s rapid economic growth,” the report warns. With rising temperatures triggering extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts, cyclones, and floods, and erratic rainfall, they would adversely impact the country’s natural ecosystems, and agricultural output, and freshwater resources, while also damaging infrastructure, it says.

Pointing out that the projected climate changes “portend serious consequences for the country’s biodiversity, food, water and energy security”, the report calls for “focussed impact assessment studies” based on its findings, and “detailed, regional-scale climate change risk assessments” to develop region- and sector-specific mitigation and adaptation measures.

Authoritative report, fills gap

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its periodic reports (here and here), has shown how climate change is impacting the world. However, the IPCC reports do not include country-specific assessments, and MoES’s climate report has filled that gap for India by providing an authoritative assessment of the impact of climate change on the country and its neighbourhood.

Greenhouse gases (GHG), the primary culprit in global warming, which are produced by human activities, caused an increase of 0.7°C in India’s average temperature in 118 years to 2018, says the report entitled Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region. It has been prepared by several scientists from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), Pune, and reviewed by scientists from a range of national and international institutions.

This rise, though a fraction of the projected temperature rise over India during the rest of this century, has already had severe consequences, including record high temperatures, more frequent and intense heat waves, erratic rainfall often coupled with floods, more cyclones, and erosion of the coastline due to a rise in sea-levels. (Read IndiaSpend’s series of reports from India’s climate change hotspots.)

With further warming, the “chances of these extremes overlapping are large, multiplying the threat”, said Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the IITM and lead author of the United Nations’ report on climate change’s impact on oceans and the cryosphere. “We call them compound events,” added Koll. For example, he explained, an intense cyclone could be accompanied by heavy rains and storm surges, as in the recent case of the Amphan cyclone that hit West Bengal and Bangladesh, or droughts might take place along with heatwaves.

With India being the third largest emitter of climate change-inducing carbon dioxide (CO2), after China and the United States, the MoES report’s findings for India are also important in the context of the global fight against climate change. Human activities have pushed up the global temperature by 1°C above the pre-industrial levels (before the 1800s), causing widespread extreme climate events. Countries have only a decade until 2030 to stop irreversible damage caused by increasing global temperature. For that, they are required to voluntarily and aggressively cut their carbon emissions--a deal that almost 200 countries from around the world agreed on under the Paris Agreement in 2015.

India’s annual CO2 emissions, which stood at 2.30 gigatonnes (Gt) in 2018, will rise to around 8 Gt in the next 80 years if India continues to stay on the current policy path, with no new initiative to cut its emissions, said the MoES report.

To do its part in the global fight against climate change in accordance with the Paris Agreement, India’s must begin reducing its CO2 emissions this year, as the projections in the MoES report show.

Coal Vs Climate

However, in a step that experts told us is severely detrimental to this effort, India has given a new push to the use of coal. On May 16, as part of India’s Rs 20-lakh-crore ($2.65 billion) recovery package, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the coal mining sector would be opened up to private players, allowing them to mine and sell coal in the open market. This included a new process for auctioning mining blocks, replacing an earlier approach considered a hurdle in boosting coal production.

The liberalisation of the coal sector, part of an effort to reverse the economic slump intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, was aimed at attracting new investment in the sector, creating new jobs and making India an exporter of coal from the current position of being a major importer, IndiaSpend reported on June 5.

However, this was a misplaced priority, experts told us, given that the sector is costly, debt-ridden and highly polluting, and climate-friendly renewables are becoming more viable, both economically and technically. Globally, too, leading economies and capital investment are shunning coal, due to its impact on climate, and on account of competitive pricing by cleaner energy sources, we reported.

The burning of coal is responsible for 44% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. There are clear economic and environmental benefits in moving away from it, Sunil Dahiya, an analyst at the think-tank Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), told IndiaSpend. “Unfortunately, dealing with climate change, one of the biggest risks that the world is facing, has been pushed down the priority list against polluting coal,” he said.

“Cognitive dissonance”

Alluding to the risks of depending on thermal power sources such as coal, the MoES’s climate report warned that rising temperatures were likely to increase the energy demand for air conditioning and other cooling systems in the future, and if this increased energy demand was met by thermal power, it would add to global warming by increasing GHG emissions.

Global coal use in electricity generation must fall 80% below 2010 levels by 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5°C, according to an analysis of recent research from the IPCC. Currently, coal-based electricity generation plants make up for nearly 54% of India’s power generation capacity.

Changing climate also threatens the reliability of thermal power, said the MoES report. Thermal power plants, which require a substantial amount of water to generate electricity, risk making freshwater--which is already declining--less available in the future for domestic and agriculture use, the report warned. “On the other hand,” it pointed out, “power plants sited around the coast that use sea water for cooling are vulnerable to damage from sea-level rise, cyclones, and storm surge.”

Now that India’s own climate change assessment has underscored the urgent need for mitigation, promoting the use of coal and other climate-unfriendly activities reveals “cognitive dissonance” within government, said Aarti Khosla, director, Climate Trends, a Delhi-based non-profit.

“Expanding coal projects, loosening environmental norms, and opening up pristine natural ecosystems to commercial activity despite knowing fully well how the long-term impacts are looking, shows that all sides of the government decision-making system don't have the same view of the solutions,” she told IndiaSpend.

Granular details on how climate change is impacting India

The MoES report provides a granular account of how climate change is impacting India. It reports adverse trends over the last 60-odd years that have by and large accelerated in the latter part of this time-frame, and warns of worsening trends.These are some of its findings:

Heat waves: Due to increasing temperatures, the heat wave season, from April to June, will see four times more frequent heat waves by 2099, compared to their frequency between 1976-2005. The duration of heat waves might also double.

Decreasing and more erratic rainfall: The rainfall over north India has decreased by 6% over the 64 years between 1951-2015. The rainfall over the country has also become more erratic: More frequent dry spells have been observed over the 30-year period between 1981-2011, compared to the preceding 30 years. This erratic nature of monsoon will become more extreme in the coming decades, and the extreme wet spells could lead to more flooding, especially, in the major Himalayan river basins including Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra.

Drought: The decrease in summer monsoon rainfall over the last 60-70 years has made the country more vulnerable to drought, especially, the central parts of India, including parts of Indo-Gangetic Plains. Both the frequency and area under droughts in the country have increased significantly over 65 years, between 1951–2016. By the end of the 21st century, the frequency, intensity and the extent of drought is likely to increase.

Warming oceans: The surface temperature of the Indian Ocean--that includes both the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea--has risen by 1°C on average over the six decades between 1951–2015. The warmer sea surface temperatures are disrupting marine life and increasing the intensity of cyclonic storms. The frequency of extremely severe cyclonic storms over the Arabian Sea has increased during the post-monsoon seasons of 1998-2018. The intensity of cyclones in the north Indian Ocean will increase during the 21st century.

Changes in the Himalayas: The Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH)--a stretch of mountain ranges running from Afghanistan in the west to China in the east birthing ten of Asia’s largest rivers--have experienced a temperature rise of about 1.3°C during 1951–2014. Due to increased temperatures, several areas of HKH have experienced a declining trend in snowfall and also the retreat of glaciers in recent decades. The situation will further worsen with increasing temperatures.

(Tripathi is an IndiaSpend reporting fellow.)

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