New Delhi: Recent extreme weather events, such as floods in Kerala, wildfires in Uttarakhand and heat waves in the north and east, have demonstrated how vulnerable India is to climate change. Such events, which cause widespread destruction and impact the availability of food and water, are likely to become more frequent and intense in India because of rising average temperatures.

A new report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global body of climate change scientists, is being released on October 8, 2018. This report will be an assessment of how effective the initiatives of all nations, including India, are in mitigating the rise in global temperatures.

Early leaks of the report (here and here) indicate its findings are likely to be disquieting. "Climate scientists are struggling to find the right words for very bad news," said the headline of a story in the Washington Post on October 3, 2018.

In the next 10 years the world may reach its carbon pollution quota, the amount of carbon it can release into the atmosphere before global temperature rises by 1.5 deg C, the Washington Post report said. This could be disquieting news for India, the world’s third-largest carbon polluter after China and the United States.

The IPCC report is also likely to recommend “stricter” climate actions by governments, allowing the use of only a third of the coal being consumed today by 2030, Bloomberg reported on September 30, 2018, quoting the leaked draft of the report. The aim is to keep warming down to 1.5 deg C since the industrial era began in 1800.

Here is the problem for India: It is the second-largest coal consumer after China, putting at risk the lives of 600 million Indians to disasters caused by climate change.

Coal currently feeds about 27% of the world’s and 60% of India's energy demand. “Under a bolder outlook that assumes quicker action to protect the atmosphere, coal use would fall to 13% of the energy market by 2040,” Bloomberg said on September 30, 2018, referring to the IPCCs draft recommendation.

As a part of the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to 1.5-2 deg C, India had agreed to cut carbon pollution by raising its renewable-power capacity to 40% by 2030--from 20% in 2018--increase its forest cover, build climate-resilient cities and improve solid-waste management.

Here is where India stands on these pledges today:

  • Currently, renewable power capacity in India is 20% of installed capacity.

  • The country’s forest area rose by 1% over the two years to 2017, covering 24% of India. But the figure is likely exaggerated and includes degraded forests and plantations, FactChecker reported on July 4, 2018.

  • Only 24% of the country’s solid waste collected annually by municipalities is processed.

Are India’s nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to reduce greenhouse emissions ambitious enough to help limit global warming to 1.5 deg C? No, according to the Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific group tracking climate actions of the nations.

India’s commitments “are not fully consistent” with the Paris Agreement, the report said. If India achieves all its targets, warming could be held below 2 deg C but would still be “too high” to be consistent with the 1.5-deg-C limit.

Four looming climate-change threats for India

Increasing heat wave episodes: If there are no changes in the current emissions and environment policies, India’s average annual temperatures are expected to rise 1.5-3 deg C by 2050. Temperatures will rise by 1°C-2°C even if preventive measures on the lines of the Paris Agreement are implemented, said a June 2018 World Bank study.

Over 4,800 Indians died due to heat waves across the country over four years to 2017, with the highest number of deaths in 2015. These heat-wave events are likely to worsen: Under the current emission scenario, they could increase by 75 times by the end of the century, gripping the entire stretch from Uttar Pradesh in the north to the southern peninsular. Their frequency will also increase by 3-9 events in the next 30 years, reaching 18-30 events by the final quarter of the century.

The frequency of severe heat waves in India will rise by 30 times by the end of the century, even if India adhere to the Paris Agreement and the global mean temperature rise is limited below 2 deg C. If not, even a humid seaside city like Kolkata could experience temperature conditions equivalent to its deadly 2015 heatwave every year.

Looming water crisis: The other effects of a 2-deg C rise in the global mean temperature over India could be on the availability of water. The annual runoff in the Ganga river basin is expected to decrease by about 20% and this could worsen the current water crisis.

Nearly 600 million Indians are facing high-to-extreme water stress because more than 40% of the annually available surface water is being used. About 200,000 people are dying every year due to inadequate access to safe water, a situation likely to worsen because of water shortages by 2050.

Lower living standards for 600 million Indians: By 2050, rising temperatures and changing monsoon rainfall patterns could cost India 2.8% of its gross domestic product and could lower the living standards for nearly 600 million people living in "hotspots" -- areas vulnerable to changes in average temperature and rainfall, according to the June 2018 World Bank study.

Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are predicted to be India's top two climate hotspot states by 2050, followed by Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra. Jharkhand, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Chandigarh make up the rest of the 10 worst-affected states. In all 10 states, hotter days and erratic rainfall would increase the stress on farmers, said the study.

Seven of the top 10 most-affected hotspot districts will be in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, the report said. “These hotspots are not only necessarily regions where the temperature will be higher, but they are also defined by the local population’s socio-economic capacity to cope with the climatic changes," said the report.

Nutrition crisis: The rise in carbon dioxide (CO2) in atmosphere is making our food less nutritious, according to a September 2018 study by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University. It is also making crops such as rice and wheat less nutritious and could result in 175 million people--1.9% of the global population--becoming zinc-deficient and 122 million protein-deficient by 2050.

India could be the country worst hit with world’s largest number, about 50 million people—the population size of Andhra Pradesh—becoming zinc-deficient and 38 million—equal to the combined population of Haryana and Uttarakhand --becoming protein-deficient.

India will also see more than 500 million women and children becoming vulnerable to diseases associated with iron deficiency due to inadequate nutrition, as per the Harvard study.

(Tripathi is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)

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