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Hot and Flooded: What the IPCC Report Forecasts for India’s Development Future

Photo: Saikiran Kesari/Unsplash

  • In the near-term, the IPCC report reaffirms that India can no longer afford to ignore the very real developmental challenge that climate change poses at home.
  • In a significant development, the government’s statement contains a clear and welcome acknowledgement of the relationship between climate change and extreme events.
  • To embark on a low-carbon development pathway, however, India will need an institutional architecture with a more strategic bent.

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.”

Thus begins the contribution of Working Group 1 (WG1) to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report (AR6) on global climate change. Released just a few months ahead of COP 26, ‘Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis‘ synthesises the most up-to-date research on the current state of the climate. Over the last three years, 751 climate experts from 66 countries have voluntarily committed their time to the task of writing, editing and delivering this report to the international community. The WG1 Summary for Policymakers (SPM) has undergone a detailed line-by-line review by representatives from IPCC member countries and scientists to obtain consensus on its language and content. 1

In this piece, we highlight what this landmark report says about India’s climate future, and how the Indian government has responded to its findings.

India’s 7,500-km-long coastline, largely monsoon- and river-dependent livelihoods, and vulnerability to heat and flooding extremes make its people deeply vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The IPCC report notes that the “extremity” of heavy rainfall and flooding in Chennai in 2015 was attributable to “the warming trend in the Bay of Bengal sea surface temperatures and the strong El-Nino conditions” (Ch 11:110). More recently, floods in Maharashtra, landslides in the Himalayan region and a record number of forest fires have resulted in a substantial loss of life and property, fuelling concerns around future climate disasters.

As the third largest national emitter of greenhouse gases in 2018, India’s transition to a low-carbon future will determine the trajectory of global efforts to mitigate climate change. However, its domestic mitigation efforts will be shaped not just by ‘climate-first’ policies, but by its broader economic, social and developmental choices over the coming decades. Recent Indian climate reports, such as the ‘Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region’ (undertaken by the Ministry of Earth Sciences in 2020), already predict increasingly frequent droughts, variability in monsoon rainfall, and a marked rise in temperature by the end of the century. The latest IPCC report confirms the weight of these findings (see figure below).

Impact on South Asia and India in the 21st century. Source: CPR

(1.  Shared socio-economic pathways (SSPs) describe a range of plausible trends in the evolution of society over the 21st century. SSP2-4.5 represents an approximation of current emissions trends. It  incorporates the upper end of aggregate nationally determined contributions emissions and deviates only mildly from a ‘no-additional-climate-policy’ reference scenario. South Asia specific projections have been obtained from the IPCC Interactive Atlas

2. Sea level rise is estimated in comparison to a baseline of 1995-2014, whereas other variables are estimated in comparison to a baseline of 1850-1900.)

How has the Indian government responded to this report?

India welcomed the contribution of the IPCC report with an official statement from Union environment minister Bhupendra Yadav. Reflective of the country’s long-standing position on global climate change, the Minister said that the IPCC report was a ‘clarion call’ for ‘developed countries’ that had ‘usurped far more than their fair share of the global carbon budget’ to ‘undertake immediate, deep emission cuts and decarbonisation of their economies.’

The statement also provides insight into India’s position on climate change in two key ways.

First, it weighs in – albeit in a limited manner – on an important ongoing debate: net-zero emissions targets. Over the past few months, public policy and climate experts alike have made compelling cases both for and against net-zero pledges. The environment ministry makes its views on the subject clear: “Reaching net-zero alone,” reads the statement’s headline, “is not enough”.

Former Indian climate negotiators have argued that a ‘net zero or nothing’ view of climate ambition runs counter to the principle of common but differentiated responsibility under the Paris Agreement. The government statement veers away from arguments around future emissions altogether, perhaps in an effort to refocus the conversation around historical emissions rather than India’s rising  contribution to future emissions. It notes simply that net-zero is “not enough” because “cumulative emissions up to net zero determine the temperature that is reached”. In the lead-up to COP in November – and at a time when several major economies have declared net-zero targets – this is an important indication of India’s stance.

Second, in a significant departure, the government’s statement contains a clear and welcome acknowledgement of the relationship between climate change and extreme events. The statement reads that “climate change is impacting the South Asian monsoons” and that “rising temperature” could lead to “heatwaves”. In the recent monsoon session of Parliament, in response to pointed questions on the correlation between climate change and extreme weather events in Maharashtra and the impact of climate change on agriculture, the government stated that India lacked indigenous research reports establishing the connection between climate change and extreme events. “[There is] no established study,” the government claimed, “for India providing a quantified contribution of climate change triggering extreme heat, rain and drought”.

In its statement in response to the IPCC report, the government sets the record straight – not by citing Indian research linking climate change to extreme weather (1, 2, 3) – but by acknowledging the IPCC’s findings about monsoon rainfall and heatwaves.

Notably, the government’s response to the IPCC report contains one erroneous claim: it asserts that the IPCC report is “proof” that India has “taken numerous steps to tackle the global problem of climate change,” and that the country is “well on the path of decoupling its emissions from economic growth.” In fact, the IPCC report does not discuss these issues.

However, the report has implications for India’s future climate efforts, which we explore in brief below.

Rethinking Indian climate narratives

The IPCC is virtually certain that human-induced climate change is the main driver for the increasing frequency, intensity and duration of extreme global weather events. In the last year alone, India experienced numerous and concurrent weather extremes: heatwaves in north India, floods in the northeast, forest fires in Uttarakhand, and major cyclones. Amphan, the fiercest storm in the Bay of Bengal this century, struck in May  2020 and became the costliest tropical cyclone in the North Indian Ocean, resulting in economic losses of nearly $14 billion and displacing over 2.4 million people in the Indian subcontinent. Even in the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the human costs of these disasters stood out, providing a glimpse of what a climate-disrupted India could look like.

In the near-term, the IPCC report reaffirms that India can no longer afford to ignore the very real developmental challenge that climate change poses at home, particularly to its ecology-dependent livelihoods. The IPCC forecasts that India will be subject to heavy rainfall, heatwaves, topsoil aridity, and groundwater depletion; each of these changes could spell economic disaster for India’s already-distressed farmers. The IPCC also notes that glaciers in the Himalayas “feed ten of the world’s most important river systems and are critical water sources for nearly two billion people” – but that they are “projected to experience volume losses of approximately 30 to 100% by 2100 depending on global emissions scenarios” (ch 8:79).  Such unprecedented changes, coupled with rising instances of  floods and landslides, could displace local people, damage infrastructure, and demand non-trivial state and central funds to rebuild mountain livelihoods and communities.

In the long-term, the IPCC report reminds us of the importance of building governments and institutions capable of tackling the climate crisis. Historically, Indian climate efforts have been characterised by the politics of opportunism: an “approach that prioritises traditional developmental objectives but admits, and sometimes expediently emphasises, the language of mitigation in government”.

To embark on a low-carbon development pathway, however, India will need an institutional architecture with a more strategic bent. Here we must begin by gathering credible and evidence-based ideas around sector-by-sector transitions, unlocking coordinated decision-making across the silos of line ministries, and establishing innovative institutions and funding mechanisms that can incentivise climate action within India’s federal structure.

The IPCC report indicates that the climate crisis will disrupt India’s developmental future, and undercut the prosperity of its people in the long run. Moving forward, it is important for India to uphold principles of equity in the global climate regime, and add to the chorus of voices demanding that wealthier nations remain true to their pledges and commitments towards financial and technological support. But a narrative based solely around historical emissions – as well-reasoned as it may seem now – does not account for India’s disproportionate vulnerability to climate impacts, or the immense opportunities arising from a low-carbon development pathway. The sooner we realise this, the faster we can get down to the deep work of building a climate-ready Indian state.

IPCC WG1 Interactive Atlas – regional information

Mandakini Chandra, Arunesh Karkun and Sharon Mathew are research associates at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi. This article was first published on CPR’s Environmentality blog and has been republished here with permission.

  1. A new note by IISD indicates that India’s participation in the editing of the SPM involved at least 60 comments, notes, objections and requests for changes in language, with varied outcomes. See here.

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