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Unveiling India's Vulnerability To Climate Change


Carbon Chronicles 3: Understanding India's Climate Realities

This article is the third instalment of the Climate Chronicles series, authored by Dr. Sidhant Pai (Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer at StepChange), that applies a scientific lens towards understanding the risks and opportunities around climate change, sustainability and clean-tech in India.


While recent years have witnessed influential world leaders take important steps towards combating climate change, the issue continues to be mired in ideological canon and political dogma. This divisiveness has obfuscated the urgent need to treat climate change as a scientific reality that meaningfully threatens over 40% of the world’s population.


Ferocious wildfires, rampaging typhoons, crippling droughts, torrential floods and inexorable sea-level rise are but a few of the climate-induced challenges that humanity will face this century. Unfortunately, at the centre of this crisis are thousands of vulnerable communities, with limited resources to adapt to the new normal. Gaining an appreciation for how climate change will reshape the fabric of our society is thus no longer an intellectual exercise; it is an imperative.


The conceptual basis for climate change can be deceiving in its simplicity - human beings emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere as a by-product of our industrialised economies. These GHGs trap heat from the sun and warm the earth. The more we warm the planet, the more drastically we impact climate and weather systems. Since society has evolved to depend heavily on these natural systems, the more we impact them, the more damage we do to society as a whole.


This causal narrative is simple and accurate, but behind it lies an intricate web of interlinked natural phenomena. The warming process serves as the engine for a cascading set of complex perturbations, ranging from polar ice melt and sea-level rise to intensified wildfires, devastating droughts, extreme storms and acidified oceans.


The uncertainties associated with these impacts can make it appear as if the underlying science is unclear, but, while specific impacts in a particular region are not always obvious or easily understood, the broader directional effects have been evident for many decades and can be validated with statistical data from the real world. It would be tempting to treat climate change as an abstract peril in the undetermined future, if the repercussions were not already here for us to witness. In summary, the science around climate change is not in question, and hasn’t been for many years now.


Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies recently declared that the Summer of 2023 was the hottest since global records began in 1880. To provide context on why that’s concerning, the World Health Organisation estimates that a warming climate will result in around 2,50,000 annual deaths by the 2030s, which many scientists view as a conservative projection. Similarly, the real-world costs of adapting to climate impacts are projected to balloon over the coming decade. The United Nations Environment Programme projects that annual adaptation costs will reach between $140-300 billion by 2030, comparable in magnitude to the entire GDPs of countries like Portugal and Greece!


As a developing nation with hundreds of millions still living in material poverty, India is particularly vulnerable to climatic perturbations. A warmer climate will accelerate the melting of polar glacier ice and result in the thermal expansion of the oceans. This will inevitably result in sea-level rise, with a recent IPCC report projecting up to 1-metre of global sea-level rise by 2100 under certain scenarios. The impacts of sea-level rise are projected to be particularly severe in low-lying areas on the east coast of India, such as around Kolkata, Puri and Chennai. A 1-metre rise would be devastating for coastal communities in these regions, displacing tens of millions of people.


A somewhat direct impact of global warming is an increase in the frequency and duration of intense heat-waves. Weather data indicates a rising trend in extreme heat-waves across the country, with record-breaking temperatures measured every few years. Some studies project that, by 2050, extreme heat-waves in India could exceed human survivability limits in certain regions, even when taking refuge in the shade! This could severely impact the habitability of many regions, and lead to displacements and disruptions for as many as 480 million people in India.


Warming the planet also intensifies the water cycle, which will result in a more severe monsoon season with more frequent flood events. Coastal cities like Mumbai and Chennai will be in the unenviable position of battling compound floods from both sea-level rise and extreme precipitation. Due to the complexities of the monsoon system, a warming climate is also expected to shift monsoon corridors and weaken certain circulation patterns. This would mean that while some regions in India are projected to receive torrential rains and flood frequently, others will suffer severe droughts with very little rainfall.


There has been a 57% increase in drought-prone areas within India over the past 25 years, a worrisome statistic given the country’s reliance on rain-fed agriculture. Studies have also estimated that agricultural yields could reduce by up to 25% in the long run due to increased temperature-stress, compounding the impacts of reduced water availability. In addition, climate change is projected to lead to a loss of habitat for many species of plants and animals that are vital to regional ecosystems in India.


The hot and dry conditions also lead to much higher risks of destructive forest fires, particularly in deciduous forests. Around 35% of India’s forests are deemed to be fire-prone, based on an assessment by the Forest Survey of India, further highlighting the vulnerability of the nation’s lungs to a warming climate.


Our oceans serve as vital carbon and heat sinks for our planet, absorbing around 25% of our CO2 emissions and around 90% of the total excess heat due to climate change. However, the increased absorption of carbon dioxide acidifies the oceans, posing a grave threat to marine ecosystems, shellfish and coral reefs. Similarly, warmer sea-surface temperatures fuel more intense tropical cyclones, with a recent study estimating that climate change has already increased cyclonic storms in the Arabian Sea by around 52% over the past two decades. To set context on how devastating these storms can be, Cyclone Tauktae resulted in a tragic death toll and over ₹11,500 crore in total damages when it struck Gujarat in May 2021.


In addition to intensifying natural disasters, climate change is projected to drive an increase in food-borne, water-borne and vector-borne diseases. For instance, a 1-degree rise in temperatures could be the difference between a previously uninfested region becoming habitable to disease-carrying mosquitoes. Heat-stress and other climatic stress factors are also projected to lead to many thousands of crores in infrastructural damage, mental health issues, social unrest and labour productivity losses. In fact, a recent Reserve Bank of India report estimates that, by 2030, up to 4.5% of India’s GDP could be at risk due to labour productivity losses from extreme heat and humidity alone.


India stands on the precipice of an irrevocable transformation, ushered in by a rapidly warming climate. While undoubtedly vulnerable, the nation is also in a unique position to leap-frog the carbon-intensive paradigms of the past, invest in a clean and sustainable growth model, and move the needle on climate action for billions of people around the world. The exigency of our climate crisis should dissolve partisan lines and ideological divides, serving instead as the linchpin of a national unity aimed at building a verdant, stable and prosperous future for countless generations of Indians to come.


In forthcoming instalments of this series, we will delve into sector-specific decarbonisation and adaptation solutions, elaborate on key climate concepts, and offer clarity on actionable pathways to achieve our collective imperative. While it is crucial to understand the implications of our business-as-usual behaviour, it is equally important to not ruminate unproductively on the challenges that lie ahead. Let us instead galvanise a shared understanding of climate change to reimagine, and indeed reinvent, our collective destiny.


(Special thanks to Keshmina Chevli and Anisha Maini for their help researching the facts and figures in this article. The next instalment in this series will focus on understanding physical and transition climate risks.)


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