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What the New IPCC Climate Report Portends for India and South Asia

What the New IPCC Climate Report Portends for India and South Asia

People commute as it rains in Delhi, July 13, 2021. Photo: PTI

  • On February 28, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body, published the second instalment of its highly anticipated Sixth Assessment Report.
  • It predicts economic damages in our future in the form of floods, cyclones and heatwaves, and through slow-moving crises like declining agricultural productivity.
  • In this article, the authors summarise some of its most important lessons for India and South Asia.

On February 28, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body, published the second instalment of its highly anticipated Sixth Assessment Report.

This report, the IPCC Working Group II’s synthesis of research on climate impacts, adaptation measures and vulnerability, has clear takeaways for India and South Asia. It tells us that economic damages will be steep without aggressive global mitigation, and that we will have to redesign our cities, energy systems and water resources to be consistent with climate-resilient development pathways.

It predicts that these changes will have to be made under a barrage of extreme events such as floods, cyclones and heatwaves, and through slow-moving crises like declines in agricultural productivity, mental health and water availability. And perhaps most sobering, these impacts will compound  each other, greatly complicating efforts at resilience. But it also gives us reasons for optimism, detailing several adaptation measures already underway.

This report involved over 900 authors who reviewed around 34,000 scientific papers. Around 43% of its authors were from developing countries. We summarise here some of its most important lessons for India and South Asia.

Extreme events and the economy

A large coastal population, high levels of heat exposure and risk of concurrent flood and drought incidents places India among the countries most vulnerable to climate change. The report identifies large scale displacement, a 11-20% increase in the number of people at risk of hunger, and infrastructural and other losses as some consequences.

Without adaptation measures, India’s GDP losses from sea-level rise alone will be second only to China by 2080. The report recommends a few adaptation strategies, including nature-based protection of shorelines, insurance to farmers against weather related losses and a more efficient public distribution system to relieve immediate survival pressures on climate change’s victims.

The IPCC report finds that the impacts of climate change could result in a loss of 2% of GDP in South Asian countries by 2050. Exposure to extreme heat is expected to become more frequent, intense and long-lasting in South Asia, increasing the likelihood of droughts in arid areas.

In the Indus and Ganga river basins, “deadly” heat waves could cross the limits of human survivability, with some regions already experiencing such conditions. By the end of the century, South Asia will be one of the regions hardest hit by heat stress, with outdoor workers seeing the number of “climatically stressful” work days increasing to 250 per year.

Water scarcity and food security

The longest list of challenges for the region in this report are in sections relating to water and food. Of the nearly four billion that live in water scarcity for one month a year, half are in India and China. The report also notes that India is emerging as the most vulnerable nation in terms of crop production.

Extreme droughts and heatwaves will have negative implications for agricultural income and crop productivity. A large proportion of the 300-odd million people exposed to lower agricultural yields above 1.5º C of warming will be from South Asia.  Sensitivity to temperature changes is quite high; maize production in India, for example, could see decreases of 25% at 1º C and 70% at 4º C.

Modelling predicts much higher rice and wheat prices that will severely impact economic growth. The report stresses the human toll of these effects, linking agricultural losses to suicides.

The threats are particularly acute for populations in the Indo-Gangetic Plains, who will grow more dependent on mountain water just as groundwater levels are reaching critical levels and glaciers are melting. Nepal lost a startling 24% of its glacier area in 1980-2010. The report notes the “conspicuous absence” of transboundary scale adaptation policies in the region to cushion these effects.

Cities are projected to grow by up to 90% across the world; a substantial portion of this will take place in India. Yet cities are particularly harsh environments for climate change. Urban heat, for example, affects poorer populations and children disproportionately, particularly in the context of poor infrastructure in South Asia.

Besides heat, South and Southeast Asian cities will together account for three-quarters of urban land prone to high frequency flood-risk. South Asia’s many coastal cities are relatively unprotected from sea-level rise, with one of the highest coastal protection deficits in the world. These cities are also threatened by too little water in the form of urban droughts, with Delhi, Karachi and Kolkata being among the most vulnerable.

Gendered vulnerability

The IPCC report provides ample evidence that Indian women will disproportionately bear the impacts of climate change. Frequent droughts and heatwaves will increase workloads and stress for Indian women. Climate-induced food insecurity in South Asia will result in a host of negative birth outcomes for pregnant mothers – including undernutrition, stunting and childhood mortality.

In the Sundarbans, the IPCC report finds that climate-induced soil salinization is burdensome for women responsible for obtaining clean drinking water. While the Report notes that India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change includes climate policies that focus on women, it also finds that the “mere inclusion” of women in national and sub-national planning is insufficient, and that it has not resulted in “substantial gender-transformative action”.

Energy and displacement

The report notes that changes to water availability will make India’s energy system less reliable. Of the coal plants currently experiencing water scarcity for five or more months a year, around a sixth are in India; such constraints will increase with higher temperatures.

Similarly, changes in the flow of mountain rivers that rely on snow and glacial melt will lead to a long-term decline in hydropower productivity in the region. This will affect hydropower installations in the Himalayas, which India and its neighbours are looking towards to combat the intermittency of renewable power.

Alarmingly, four million people were displaced in disaster-induced events in Bangladesh and India each in 2019. The report, however, underscores that migration is not a feasible adaptation strategy in India as it deepens climate change injustice. States lack the capacity and the resources to affect a smooth transition for climate change victims.

These “footloose” migrants struggle to secure employment or socially integrate within their new community owing to economic and political differences, exacerbating their exposure to future environmental risks. In a warming world, these conditions will become more pervasive unless climate change mitigation measures are enforced.

Immediate action

The report pushes governments and societies to respond immediately. The longer we wait on reducing global emissions, it argues, the fewer adaptation options we will have left. And the longer we take to adapt, the more people will suffer. One of its poignant conceptual moves is to highlight ‘adaptation limits’ beyond which adaptation is no longer possible. This limit shifts based on the financial endowments, governance capabilities etc. of a society.

It makes repeated calls for stronger social safety nets, recommending that the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme account for climate planning risks or the continuation of emergency food stocks in the country. It also makes frequent nods to participatory decision-making and inclusion as integral to effective adaptation at a moment when those values are disappearing from Indian environmental governance.

The core offering of the report is the concept of ‘Climate Resilient Development Pathways’, an emerging development paradigm that integrates sustainability goals, adaptation and mitigation (though it acknowledges the challenges involved). The real force behind this idea is that it compels governments to internalise climate resilience in nearly all development decisions.

Aditya Valiathan Pillai, Mandakini Chandra and Sharon Mathew are with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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