India : Between a Rock and a Hard Place
On the sidelines of the climate change COP 26 meetings, a lot of background information came out in the limelight. The information is not new, would have been known to those working in the field for a long time but hasn’t received the attention it should. It is no doubt true that the Climate Change agenda is being driven by developed countries which from a position of prosperity and has contributed massively to global warming, themselves, now want to dictate a prescription for others to follow.
While this is the case, it does not mean that others can afford to be complacent about it. For instance, it is true that as global warming continues, sea levels will rise and many cities and even countries are likely to be affected. In the list of 9 cities that could be underwater by as early as 2030, there are two cities in the region – Kolkata and Bangkok. Indian megacities — Mumbai, and Chennai being coastal and low lying are also vulnerable apart from vital infrastructure such as power plants which are often sited along the coast since they need vast quantities of water for cooling. In other lists where there is speculation about which countries are likely to be partially submerged, one can find Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. In fact, I remember seeing a Maldives Tourism poster inviting the world to come and visit them while they are still above water. Such a situation is certainly alarming even if the prediction is off by a decade or two.
Many of us may not be aware that India is the third-largest carbon emitter in the world, after China and the US. India has maintained that it is on course to outperform its Paris climate agreement pledge to reduce its carbon footprint by 33-35% from 2005 levels by 2030. The Paris climate goal is to keep global average temperature rise to well below 2C and strive for 1.5C to prevent runaway climate change. However countries are not cutting down carbon emissions fast enough, causing global temperature to rise and it is not certain anymore that temperatures rising above 1.5 C are actually feasible.
However, in a significant announcement made at Glasgow, India announced that it will achieve its zero-net emissions target by 2070. Other milestones announced were that the country would bring its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030. Also by 2030, India would fulfill 50 percent of its energy requirement through renewable energy. India also promised to bring down the carbon intensity of its economy by more than 45 percent. However India also expects the developed nations to make available climate finance of 1 Trillion dollars at the earliest.
Meanwhile, while political and technical discussions continue, a recent report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on climate change(IPCC) has indicated that Glacial retreat in the Hindu Kush, effects of sea-level rise and intense tropical cyclones leading to flooding; an erratic monsoon; and intense heat stress are likely to impact India in recent years. Most of these impacts are irreversible and hence cannot be remediated even if greenhouse gas emissions decline dramatically according to the report. The IPCC report titled ‘Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis’ released on the eve of the Glasgow talks said that heatwaves and humid heat stress will be more intense and frequent during the 21st century over South Asia. Another concern for India is its water supply. Much of its water comes from glaciers melting in the Himalayas—a melt that has been expedited in recent years by rising temperatures. Recently scientists have voiced fears that India’s supply could suddenly surge as a result of melting before drying up, creating massive waves of displaced and starving people.
With a 1.2 billion but growing population and dependence on agriculture, India probably will be severely impacted by continuing climate change. Being an agrarian economy in substantial part, changes in the magnitude and patterns of monsoon rainfall are of great consequence to India. Uncertainties about monsoonal changes will affect farmers’ choices about which crops to plant and the timing of planting, reducing productivities. In addition, earlier seasonal snowmelt and depleting glaciers will reduce the river flow needed for irrigation. The large segment of poor people including smallholder farmers and landless agricultural workers) maybe hardest hit, requiring government relief programs on a massive scale. Farmers may be the most hurt by climate change, but other workers can be affected, too. According to the International Labour Organisation, 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.
To avert catastrophic health impacts and prevent millions of climate change-related deaths, the world must limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. Past emissions have already made a certain level of global temperature rise and other changes to the climate inevitable. Global heating of even 1.5°C is not considered safe, however; every additional tenth of a degree of warming will take a serious toll on people’s lives and health. While no one is safe from these risks, the people whose health is being harmed first and worst by the climate crisis are the people who contribute least to its causes, and who are least able to protect themselves and their families against it – people in low-income and disadvantaged countries and communities. The climate crisis threatens to undo the last fifty years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction, and to further widen existing health inequalities between and within populations.
Meanwhile, as I conclude this piece, a woman in her seventies, who lives on a trailer in the Canadian province of British Columbia, has been clinically diagnosed to be suffering from ‘climate change by a doctor whom she visited in late June this year, according to a Canadian newspaper. Apparently, she is the first person to be so labelled. It is clear therefore that our contribution to the climate crisis and its impacts on health are too gigantic to be ignored anymore or else we will start getting used to seeing another diagnosis on our death certificates.
A former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for the last few decades.