Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab are to be most severely affected by climate change.
Human-induced climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world, despite efforts to reduce the risks. People and ecosystems least able to cope are being hardest hit, said scientists in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released today.
The new IPCC report on Climate Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability refers to India as one of the countries that will be economically harmed the most by climate change. Its per capita GDP is already lower by 16% than it would have been without human-caused warming since 1991. Given the range of impacts India is vulnerable to which include heat stress which can increase beyond the threshold of human survivability; impacts on food production due to climate change which includes food crops, fisheries; compounding disasters; and disasters taking elsewhere which will impact international supply chains, markets, trade and result in economic shocks.
While some impacts of climate change are now irreversible. At the current global warming of 1.1°C, 2021 was a watershed year for most parts of the planet, having experienced unprecedented climate impacts, such as heat dome and rampant wildfires in the Pacific Northwest of USA and Canada; severe flooding in Western Europe, eastern parts of the US, the province of Henan in China, and the states of Maharashtra, Uttarakhand in India. In India, 2021 was assessed as a series of extreme weather events, ranging from delayed monsoon withdrawal, erratic monsoon patterns, unequal distribution of rainfall leading to droughts and floods simultaneously, increased and more intense cyclonic activity, among many other climatic impacts.that even under the most optimistic emissions mitigation scenarios where net-zero is reached by around 2050, global warming will continue in the short to medium term, potentially levelling off at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, however the current climate action commitments add up to a 2.4°C warming trajectory. All this makes adaptation an increasingly urgent global imperative.
The salient points of the new report in context to India are-
Heat and humidity would pass limits of human survivability without emission cuts
Globally, heat and humidity will create conditions beyond human tolerance if emissions are not rapidly eliminated India is among the places that will experience these intolerable conditions [Ch 10, p. 57].
The report refers to wet-bulb temperatures, a measure that combines heat and humidity [Ch 10, p.43].
A wet-bulb temperature of 31°C is extremely dangerous for humans, while a value of 35°C is unsurvivable for more than about 6 hours, even for fit and healthy adults resting in the shade.
Even below these levels, heat can be deadly, especially for old or young people or those doing hard physical work.
Currently, wet-bulb temperatures in India rarely exceed 31°C, with most of the country experiencing maximum wet-bulb temperatures of 25-30°C, according to a study cited by the IPCC report [Ch 10, p.43].
The same study notes that if emissions are cut, but only by the levels currently promised, many parts of northern and coastal India would reach extremely dangerous wet-bulb temperatures of over 31°C towards the end of the century; if emissions continue to rise, wet-bulb temperatures will approach or exceed the unsurvivable limit of 35°C over much of India, with the majority of the country reaching wet-bulb temperatures of 31°C or more.
The study also mentions that under RCP8.5 (high emissions scenario), the the end of the century, Lucknow and Patna are among the cities predicted to reach wet-bulb temperatures of 35°C if emissions continue to rise, while Bhubaneswar, Chennai, Mumbai, Indore, and Ahmedabad are all identified as at risk of reaching wet-bulb temperatures of 32-34°C with continued emissions; overall, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chattisghard, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab will be the most severely affected, but if emissions continue to increase, all Indian states will have regions that experience wet-bulb 30°C or more by the end of the century.
In South Asia particularly, intense heat waves of longer durations and higher frequency are projected with medium confidence over India (Murari et al., 2015). At the city-level, these projections could translate into significant impacts: at 1.5°C, on average, Kolkata will experience heat equivalent to the 2015 record heat waves every year and under 2°C warming, it could expect such heat annually (Matthews et al., 2017). Critically, the impacts of extreme heat are experienced disproportionately within cities with the poorest populations and those with lower access to green spaces affected most.
- Sea-level rise will threaten people, land use patterns and infrastructure in India
Global sea levels will likely rise 44-76cm this century if governments meet their current emission-cutting pledges. With faster emissions cuts, the increase could be limited to 28-55cm. But with higher emissions, and if ice sheets collapse more quickly than expected, sea levels could rise as much as 2m this century and 5m by 2150 [WG1, SPM]. As sea levels rise, more land will be submerged, flooded regularly, eroded, or become unsuitable for agriculture due to saltwater intrusion [Ch 3, p.50]. Specifically, coastal cities and settlements will face increasing risk: “Regardless of climate and socio-economic scenarios, many C&S face severe disruption to coastal ecosystems and livelihoods by 2050 – and across all cities and settlements by 2100 and beyond – caused by compound and cascading risks, including submergence of some low-lying island states (very high confidence)” [CCP2 Executive Summary]
India is one of the most vulnerable countries globally in terms of the population that will be affected by sea-level rise [Ch.10. p.58]. By the middle of the century, around 35 million people in India could face annual coastal flooding, with 45-50 million at risk by the end of the century if emissions are high – with far fewer at risk if emissions are lower, according to a study cited by the IPCC report [Ch 3, p.126].
The economic costs of sea-level rise and river flooding for India would also be among the highest in the world [Ch.10 p.59]. Direct damage is estimated at between $24 billion if emissions are cut only about as rapidly as currently promised, and $36 billion, if emissions are high and ice sheets are unstable, according to another study cited by the report [Ch.10 p.59]. This might in fact be a large underestimate; the report cites another study [Ch.10 p.59] that found damage from sea-level rise in Mumbai alone could amount to up to $162 billion a year by 2050 if emissions continue to rise.
- Food production and food security will be hit by climate change Globally, high temperatures and extreme weather events, such as droughts, extreme rainfall events, heatwaves and floods, are damaging crops and will increasingly limit crop production if temperatures continue to rise [Ch 5, p.14-15]. Climate change and rising demand mean that about 40% of people in India will live with water scarcity by 2050 compared with about 33% now, according to a study cited by the report [Ch 10, p.43]. Both the Ganges and Brahmaputra river basins will also see increased flooding as a result of climate change, particularly if warming passes 1.5°C [Ch.10 p.40]. These factors, along with saltwater intrusion from sea-level rise, will harm agriculture in India, which is considered by the report as the most vulnerable country in terms of crop production [Ch 10, p.46]. Rice production in parts of India could fall 30% if emissions are high or 10% if emissions are cut rapidly, maize production could fall 70% if emissions are high or 25% if rapid cuts are made [Ch.10 p.49]. These disruptions to crop production are expected to cause price spikes in India, threatening food affordability, food security and economic growth [Ch 10 p.52]. Continued climate change will also cause declines in India’s fisheries [Ch.10 p.47]. Key commercial species, such as hilsa shad and Bombay duck, are projected to decline dramatically if temperatures continue to rise [Ch.10 p.47], and the energy harnessed by marine plants and algae – crucial for strong fisheries – in the Western Indian Ocean has already declined 20% in the last 60 years due to climate change reducing the nutrient mixing between ocean levels [Ch.10 p.33].
- India will face severe economic damage without emission cuts India’s GDP per capita is already 16% lower than it would have been without human-caused warming since 1991, according to a study cited by the IPCC report [Ch 16, p.22]. India is the country that is economically harmed the most by climate change, with every tonne of carbon dioxide emitted globally costing the country around $86, according to a separate study cited by the report [Ch 16, p.116]. In 2021 the world emitted 36.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. Continued warming will further damage India’s economy, particularly if emissions are not rapidly eliminated. Heat will reduce labour capacity, particularly in agriculture: a study cited by the IPCC report [Ch 13, p.57] projects that agricultural labour capacity in India would fall 17% if warming continues to 3°C – only a little more than current planned emissions would lead to – or 11% if emission cuts are accelerated. The overall effect of continued high emissions could be to reduce average global incomes 23%, with average incomes in India 92% lower in 2100 than they would have been without climate change, according to a study cited by the IPCC [CCP4, p.22].
- India will be hit by the effects of extreme events that happen elsewhere While India will be hit by the effects of climatic changes that happen within its border, it will also be deeply affected by the consequences of changes that happen elsewhere. For example, climate change will hit international supply chains, markets, finance, and trade, reducing the availability of goods in India and increasing their price, as well as damaging markets for Indian exports [Ch.11 p.74, Ch.16 p.40]. Economic shocks caused by climate change, including reduced agricultural yields, damage to critical infrastructure, and commodity price rises, could lead to financial instability [Ch.11 p.76]. High levels of warming could cause a global GDP decline of 10-23% by the end of the century, compared to a world without warming [Ch 16, p. 65]. Several major economies could see even larger economic declines because of climate change, with a study cited in the report estimating GDP losses by the end of the century of up to 42% in China and 92% in India, if emissions are high [Ch 16, p. 65]. Climate change is already harming supply chains. For example, floods in Thailand in 2011 hit semiconductor production, causing global industrial production to fall 2.5% and prices of hard disks to increase 80-190% [Ch.16 p.41] (separate research, not included in the IPCC, has found that climate change made the rains that caused these floods more intense). This type of disruption is likely to become more common, especially if emissions are high, as heavier rain, stronger storms and sea-level rise will lead to more flooding in ports and other coastal infrastructure [Ch.3 p.126]. In November 2021, after the report had been drafted, floods in Canada, road and rail closures delayed shipments arriving at the Port of Vancouver, which handles most of Canada’s grain exports. This meant ships returned to Asia with empty containers, due to a lack of space to store the containers, resulting in additional delays to exports from Canada and impacting international shipping. International food supplies are also under threat. The risks of widespread crop failure due to extreme events hitting multiple places globally will increase if emissions are not rapidly cut [Ch 5, p.32]. This could lead to global food shortages and price increases, which will particularly harm poorer people and increase the risk of social unrest [Ch 16, p. 22]. For example, for maize, the probability of losing 10% or more of the crop in several places in the world in one year increases from close to 0% under the current climate to 86% if emissions continue to rise – but it can be limited to just 7% if emissions are cut rapidly [Ch. 5, p.32]. Threats to food supplies and water availability, due to continued climate change, may increase the risk of social unrest and armed conflict, particularly in poorer countries, although other factors are also important [Ch 16, p. 22].
- Health and disease incidence, especially vector-borne diseases Ch 7, p.21 Temperature, relative humidity, and rainfall variables are significantly and positively associated with increased dengue case incidence and/or transmission rates globally, including in Vietnam (Phung et al., 2015; Xuan le et al., 2014), Thailand (Xu et al., 2019a), India (Mutheneni et al., 2017; Rao et al., 2018; Mala & Jat, 2019). Ch 7, p.60 There is a high likelihood that climate change will contribute to increased distributional range and vectorial capacity of malaria vectors in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and South America (high confidence). Distribution of Anopheles may decrease in parts of India and Southeast Asia, but there is an expected increase in vectorial capacity in China (Khormi & Kumar, 2016). In India, projected scenarios for the 2030s under RCP4.5 indicate changes in the spatial distribution of
malaria, with new foci and potential outbreaks in the Himalayan region, southern and eastern states, and an overall increase in months suitable for transmission overall, with some other areas experiencing a reduction
in transmission months (Sarkar et al 2019).
The writer of this article is Dr. Seema Javed, a known Environmentalist, Journalist and Communications Expert