India has experienced 12 of the hottest years ever recorded in the last 15 years and climate change has ruined lives and livelihoods. In 2022, India saw extreme weather on 88% of the days and lost 1.96 million hectares of cropland as a result. The Modi government has made a lot of pledges to transform our energy sector to fight climate change, but how far have we reached?
By Abhijit Chanda
- Severe heat waves, which have caused thousands of lives throughout India, are now occurring more frequently
- in 2022, Madhya Pradesh and Assam witnessed the highest number of days with extreme weather events almost occurring every second day
- Between 2016–2021, extreme weather events caused damage to crops in over 36 million hectares,
a $3.75 billion loss for farmers
- In the past 30 years, India’s rainfall pattern has shifted, having an effect on sectors like forestry, agriculture, and fisheries
Open a window. Take a deep breath. Feel the sun searing your skin. The heat is back. And it feels far worse than we ever remembered.
But is it just an illusion? The last 15 years contained 12 of the hottest years ever recorded in India. The catastrophic climate has ruined lives and livelihoods. Every breath of air we take is filled with massive amounts of pollutants from factories, cars, buses, and trucks. India is the third most polluting country after China and USA.
Our government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been making a lot of pledges to transform our energy sector to fight climate change. And we can see much work is being done in this area. But how far have we reached, and will we be able to reach our goals in time to save the world, or at least our people?
According to a report by the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC), if carbon dioxide emissions continue at their current rate by 2040, global warming will increase by 1.5 degrees, causing more frequent and intense weather events. Since the start of the industrial revolution in 1850, temperatures have already increased by 1.1 degrees.
It’s easy to think of the world as outside and that we are all safe in our homeland. But India is already feeling the effects of climate change.
The Effects Are Visible
The Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and Down to Earth (DTE) Data Centre monitored India’s extreme weather occurrences in 2022 and reported their findings. According to a report, India experienced extreme weather events, such as heatwaves and floods, on 88% of days in 2022. The country saw extreme weather on 241 out of 273 days in 2022. 1.8 million hectares of cropland were affected by such events between January 1 and September 30. In the report, government records and news reports were used to analyse losses and damages caused by extreme weather events at the seasonal, monthly and regional levels. They found that extreme weather events covered 314 days in total. These killed 3,026 people, affected at least 1.96 million hectares (ha) of cropland, destroyed 4,23,249 homes, and slaughtered almost 70,000 animals. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) reports that the year was also the fifth warmest on record for the nation.
Extreme weather events have significant implications for agriculture, which employs a significant portion of the Indian population. Erratic rainfall patterns, prolonged droughts, and intense floods can adversely affect crop production, leading to reduced yields, crop failures, and financial hardships for farmers
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claimed that extreme weather occurrences were “rare at a particular place and time of year”. Extreme weather occurrences are defined by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) as lightning and thunderstorms, heavy to very heavy and extremely heavy rainfall, landslides and floods, cyclones, snowfall, dust and sandstorms, squalls, hailstorms, and gales. Scientists who study loss and damage find the report timely and it quantifies direct damages such as the loss of lives and the loss of crops.
According to the paper, titled ‘India 2022: An Assessment of Extreme Weather Occurrences’, India has witnessed a disaster “nearly every day in the first nine months of this year,” ranging from heat waves, cyclones, and lightning, to heavy rain, floods, and landslides. In India, such harsh weather events claimed the lives of up to 2,755 individuals. In more than a century, the nation has witnessed its third warmest April and third warmest March. Madhya Pradesh witnessed the highest number of days with extreme weather events, with such events occurring every second day in the state. Assam and Madhya Pradesh both lost 301 people to extreme weather events. 301 persons perished in Assam and Madhya Pradesh as a result of harsh weather. However, with 359 fatalities, Himachal Pradesh recorded the highest number of fatalities.
In a 2021 study published in Current Science, there were 660 heat waves between 1978 and 2014 that resulted in 12,273 fatalities. Heat waves are defined as periods of time when temperatures are above average and last two days or longer. Severe heat waves, which have caused thousands of lives throughout India over the last three decades, are now occurring more frequently as a result of climate change. Experts believe that this trend is only going to intensify every year, driven by a warming planet. We saw a scorching summer last year, with several regions of the country experiencing record-breaking heat.
Heat waves are hazardous because of the “wet bulb temperature,” or the intersection of high temperature and high humidity. High atmospheric moisture makes it challenging for perspiration to evaporate and bodies to cool down, which causes an increase in internal body temperature that frequently proves fatal.
Deadly heat waves damaged wheat harvests and depleted electricity supplies, prompting India to halt wheat exports at a time when the world was grappling with a grain deficit due to Russia’s conflict in Ukraine.
India has to import pricey coal to keep the lights on because of the sudden increase in demand for electricity to power cooling appliances. To prepare for a potential spike in demand this summer, the government has requested power plants to import the fuel once more.
Apart from this, India may continue to have dramatic differences in rainfall, with some areas experiencing tremendous downpours while others are experiencing droughts. That would imply that there might be significant fluctuations from one place to another even if the average rainfall stayed normal. This year, the El Nino weather pattern is also possible.
El Nino, which occurs when the equatorial Pacific surface warms and triggers a reaction in the atmosphere above it, often brings dry weather to Asia and Australia.
Extreme weather events have significant implications for agriculture, which employs a significant portion of the Indian population. Erratic rainfall patterns, prolonged droughts, and intense floods can adversely affect crop production, leading to reduced yields, crop failures, and financial hardships for farmers.
What Are Extreme Weather Events?
According to a study conducted by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, the frequency of extreme weather events are expected to increase significantly in the future as a result of climate change.
Here are their various categories in brief:
Lightning and storms: Storms include dust storms, hailstorms, thunderstorms, gales (very strong winds), and dust storms.
Heavy rains, floods, and landslides: Heavy rains are classified when 64.5 to 115.5 mm of rain falls in 24 hours. Very heavy rainfall is 115.6-204.4 mm, and extremely heavy rainfall is 204.5 or greater. Floods and landslides are consequences of such downpours.
Heatwave: This is when temperatures rise above average climatological values. In the Indian context, the above-mentioned report measured temperatures ranging from 4.5 to 6.4°C above the normal maximum temperature. Severe heat waves are when the temperature exceeds the normal maximum by more than 6.4°C.
Cold day/coldwave: A cold day is when the normal minimum and maximum temperatures are lower by 4.5 to 6.4°C from the average. Beyond that range is counted as a severely cold day. If this continues over several days, it’s known as a cold wave.
Snowfall: This hydrological danger affects transit, crops, and people. IMD’s Annual Disaster Weather Report lists India’s snowfall deaths. The report I mentioned earlier only analysed fatal snowfall events.
Cloudburst: When a localised area receives 100 mm of rain per hour with lightning and powerful winds, it’s known as a cloudburst.
Cyclones: These are intense atmospheric vortexes or whirls with powerful winds spinning around them in an anti-clockwise direction in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.
It’s essential to remember that climate change doesn’t cause extreme weather events. They have always existed. So saying any particular hurricane or flood is caused by climate change is wrong. However, the changes in the world’s climate throw our atmosphere into an imbalance, and the frequency of extreme weather events goes up. It’s a fine but important line.
According to the Climate Transparency Report 2022 created by a global collaboration of groups, the nation’s exposure to heat resulted in the loss of 167 billion potential labour hours between 1990 and 1999, a 39% increase. The report says, India’s service, manufacturing, agricultural, and construction sectors lost $159 billion in revenue in 2021, or 5.4% of its gross domestic product, as a result of the extreme heat.
If the worldwide average temperature rises by 1.5°C, it is anticipated that India’s labour productivity will fall by 5% from the 1986–2006 reference period. If global temperatures rise by 2.5°C, the reduction in worker productivity will be 2.1 times greater, and 2.7 times greater in a 3°C scenario.
Between 2016–2021, extreme events such as cyclones, flash floods, floods, and landslides caused damage to crops in over 36 million hectares, a $3.75 billion loss for farmers in the country, the report said. At 1.5°C of warming, the country’s yearly damage from river floods is anticipated to rise by about 49%. Cyclone damage is expected to rise by 5.7%.
In the past 30 years, India’s rainfall pattern has shifted, having an effect on numerous economic sectors like forestry, agriculture, and fisheries. “When compared to the precipitation levels during the reference era, snowfall in India is anticipated to decline under the 1.5°C scenario by 13%. According to the analysis, the reduction is anticipated to be 2.4 times greater under a 3°C warming scenario.
Alternatives Are Only Hope
Climate change is spurring research to secure new sources of energy. So let’s tap into where we stand in harnessing renewable energy sources and coming closer to becoming carbon neutral, not only for our health but for the planet’s health as well.
To understand where we are now, we must first look back to the pledges we have made and how we have progressed.
India sent the United Nations its new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) in August 2022. This was ten months after PM Modi announced India’s five goals to eliminate all carbon emissions by 2070. These goals, called Panchamrit, or “five nectars,” set a timeline for India to reach a net-zero economy.
The goals are to increase India’s non-fossil fuel-based energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030. Currently, we have 172.72 GW installed. This includes 6.78 GW of nuclear power capacity, 46.85 GW of large hydropower, and 119.09 GW of renewable energy capacity, meaning wind and solar. Replace 50% of our overall power capacity by 2030 with non-fossil fuel energy. Reduce India’s projected carbon emission by 1 billion tons between now and 2030.
According to the paper, titled ‘India 2022: An Assessment of Extreme Weather Occurrences’, the country has witnessed a disaster “nearly every day in the first nine months of this year,” ranging from heat waves, cyclones, and lightning, to heavy rain, floods, and landslides
Decrease the economy’s carbon intensity (in other words, this indicates how much greenhouse gas emissions are released per unit of economic activity) to less than 45% by 2030. This commitment seems realistic since we have already reached around a 24% reduction since 2015. Reach net zero emissions by 2070. India plans to set up enough resources to absorb or sequester all the carbon dioxide it produces. With a net capacity of 40.9 GW as of July 2022, India is fourth in the world regarding wind-installed capacity. Wind accounts for over 35% of the total installed renewable energy capacity. India has a great capacity for wind energy production due to its extensive onshore and offshore resources. Onshore, India may generate up to 300 GW of wind energy at a hub height of 100 metres and more than 700 GW at a hub height of 120 metres. The hub height is simply the height at which the wind turbine sits. Wind turbines at 100 metres and higher are for large multi-megawatt turbines.
In 2018, the National Institute of Wind Energy (NIWE) launched India’s first offshore wind project near the coast of Gujarat, with an initial capacity of 1 GW. There is plenty of room to grow, of course, and three prospective sites have been identified, with many more being assessed. As we all know, India has been harnessing hydroelectric power for decades, with over 50 GW of installed capacity, making it the world’s 5th largest producer of this form of electricity. The 2,000 MW Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project in Arunachal Pradesh is set to be completed in May 2023, with 2 units of 250 MW opening in June and the rest of the capacity to be completed by June 2024. India has identified the potential of pumped storage projects to complement its renewable energy generation. These projects store excess energy generated by solar and wind farms by pumping water up to a higher altitude. When the need arises, the water can flow down through a hydroelectric turbine to generate electricity during periods of high demand. This method is one of the most promising, low cost and high-capacity forms of energy storage available.
Heat waves are hazardous because of the “wet bulb temperature,” or the intersection of high temperature and high humidity. High atmospheric moisture makes it challenging for perspiration to evaporate and bodies to cool down, which causes an increase in internal body temperature that frequently proves fatal
Our first pumped storage project, the 900 MW Purulia Pumped Storage Project in West Bengal, is an excellent example of this technology. This is a closed-loop pumped hydro project, making it much more sustainable since its effects on indigenous aquatic life, wildlife, and forests are much less than other hydroelectric projects.
Biomass, the residual organic material left over from agriculture, homes and industries, constitutes a significant portion of India’s renewable energy capacity, estimated at nearly 750 million metric tonnes annually. Burning biomass still produces carbon dioxide but far less than fossil fuels. Now, the technology to use biomass for thermal power generation and to make biofuels is much more efficient than it used to be.
The government has implemented several initiatives to promote the use of biomass for power generation, such as the National Policy on Biofuels, which aims to achieve 20% blending of biofuels with conventional fuels by 2030. Furthermore, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) supports the development of biomass gasification projects to generate electricity from agricultural and forestry residues.
So there are many reasons to be optimistic. As a country, we certainly have a lot of big plans in place to become carbon neutral, and many of those plans are taking shape even now. We can see the tremendous adoption of electric vehicles and public transport nationwide. More solar panels can be seen glistening on office and factory rooftops in the cities. Reforestation initiatives are taking root with India becoming significantly greener, especially in the southern regions. In fact, India plans to plant enough trees in so-called carbon sinks by 2030 to absorb an additional 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s also an essential step towards becoming carbon neutral.
But we need to curb our enthusiasm. We are only just starting our journey. While many countries are committing to carbon neutrality by 2050, we have asked for an extra 20 years.