Monday, May 29, 2023

End Is Near: Save India From Climate Catastrophe

End Is Near: Save India From Climate Catastrophe

Will a rising sea submerge India’s coastal cities and villages in the future? Will climate change affect our monsoon, and the floods and droughts linked to it?

End Is Near: Save India From Climate Catastrophe

Let’s talk about the weather? Not merely to fill a ‘conversational void’. Not because we have nothing else to say…but because a grey day may dawn when it will rush in like a high tide from hell, flooding our consciousness. There will be nothing else to talk about. No infant god floating on a peepul leaf.

In the ordinary conversations our world is filled with, the sciences are taken to be an arcane subject—the plaything of eccentric geniuses who lurk around in labs, speaking an undecipherable language of their own. But there’s one science that, despite its technical jargon, speaks directly, urgently to the layperson. Greenhouse gases? You can’t see the damn thing, but you feel the eff­ect on your skin, literally. Suspended particulate matter? That’s what you’re breathing. The anthr­opocene age? You’re living it, contributing to it. Think only of 2021: the snowiest February in a Texan century, the mercury touching 49.6 ˚C in Canada’s hottest June ever, forest fires foretelling desertification of the Greek Pelopponese, jaw-­dropping videos of entire mountainsides crumbling in Himachal Pradesh, the Bay of Bengal’s marine life changing, crop patterns going awry…not to speak of the theory that the zoonotic viru­ses wreaking havoc globally are the fruit of wildlife displaced by deforestation. A millenarian sense of planetary doom has attended all the talk of climate change for decades now, eliciting both alarm and denial—but by now even customary naysayers could be choking in some deathly city smog somewhere. In this turbid grey air comes the latest world environment report, painting a dire scenario for India. Yes, the subcontinent is no ­island. We sink, or swim, with the world.

ALSO READ: Farming Takes Body Blow From Climate Change

The sinking feeling predominates right now. On August 9, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body mandated to study the effect of human activity on the environment, made the gloom more visible—as Milton may have said—with its sixth report. Based on 14,000 scientific papers studied by 234 experts, the IPCC 2021 report pretty much issues a red alert to the world. Without immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emiss­ions (GHGs), the report warns, it would be imp­ossible to fulfil the collective oath we took with the 2015 Paris Agreement: that is, to limit the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5 ˚C above pre-industrial levels by 2030. Result? Compound extreme events rarely seen before—indeed, unp­recedented in the world’s observational record—will become frequent, with increased intensities, durations and/or spatial extents. Last heard, India was still part of Planet Earth—so naturally, the news isn’t particularly happy for us.

Photograph by Suresh K. Pandey

Heat waves will turn into “extreme heat waves” in the subcontinent, aberrantly high monsoon rainfall will give us intimations of the end foretold in myth—via pluvial floods. Snowcaps in the Himalayas and Hindu Kush will thaw rapidly—a vicious chain again, deluge followed by aridity. Even in the lowest emission scenarios, because of the warming of the oceans as well as the melting of ice sheets and glaciers, global mean sea levels will continue to rise over the 21st century. India’s 7,500-km-plus coastline is specially vulnerable. Across six Indian port cities—Chennai, Kochi, Calcutta, Mumbai, Surat and Visakhapat­nam—28.6 million people could be exposed to coastal flooding if the sea waters swell by even 50 centimetres. Assets worth about $4 trillion will be exposed to flooding. In fact, a NASA projection based on the IPCC report says an entire array of coastal Indian cities will be under 2.7 feet of water within 80 years. From Bhavnagar, in Gujarat’s protruding lower jaw, down to Bombay, Mangalore, Kochi, and back up on the east with Chennai, Vizag, Paradip, all the way to Khidir­pur’s old docks, and every inch of lowland in bet­ween: a whole peninsular ingress. Not counting Lakshadweep, where they’re presently planning airports and ‘ring roads’ on 5 sq km islands.

ALSO READ: Sundarbans Struggles Under Waves Of Cyclones, Storm Surges

“Our analysis shows that 75 per cent of Indian districts are already hotspots for extreme climate events,” says Abinash Mohanty, Programme Lead, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). “The subcontinent will have a 20 per cent surge in extreme rainfall events. Depressions will intensify into deep depressions, cyclonic events will become more frequent, heat extremes and drought events will be the new ­normal.” That’s why grasping the potential ­“compounded impacts” of extreme weather events with the help of a “climate risk atlas” and “climate-proofing of infrastructure” is a national imperative for us, he says. Enough ordinary ­citizens know that’s true, because they have seen the trailer—rather, they were in it.

This January, unusual heavy snowfall in the Kashmir Valley forced the government to declare a state-specific natural calamity under the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) norms. That wasn’t a first. November 2019 had seen a prequel: untimely snowfall causing an unprecedented crisis, not the least to the Valley’s Rs 8,000 crore apple industry. Glaciers in the region have also shrunk—including Kolahoi Glacier, the largest in the Kashmir Himalayas, which feeds two major tributaries of river Jhelum, Lidder and Sindh. Southeast along that montane belt, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand too are witnessing freak climate events. For centuries, rains were unheard of in Himachal’s ecologically fragile Lahaul-Spiti belt, a rock-strewn moonscape slung above 10,000 feet. Now, rains and flash floods are leaving a trail of destruction. Glaciers are becoming highly unstable. Destructive cloudbursts are becoming a norm in Uttarakhand. This February, Chamoli district also saw a mammoth agglomeration of rock-and-ice breaking off from a peak and crashing into upstream tributaries of the Alaknanda: 200 people went under. Last year, rural Pithoragarh hosted apocalyptic scenes that no one saw. Chennai’s bipolar swings are better covered. In 2015, it suffered its worst inundation in a century: over 400 dead, 1.8 million homes flooded. Four years later, the city was making headlines with acute water scarcity.

ALSO READ: India’s New Edible Oil Plan: What’s Cooking?

Alternating between two extremes is by now a norm in many parts of India that see an almost endemic drought-flood cycle—think Karnataka. Even in the ongoing monsoon, which has been declared ‘normal’ going by overall statistics, a more granular picture shows us the aberrations. For instance, 21 of Odisha’s 30 districts are experiencing below-average rainfall, and farmers are worried about a repetition of the drought that wrought misery across the state in 2015 and 2018. This, of course, is a state that, along with West Bengal, bears the brunt of those increasingly ­frequent ­reruns of cyclones with exotic names. Elsewhere, there are unnameable events—like streets in small-town Madhya Pradesh and ­surrounding farmlands recalling some wintry European noirscape after freak hailstorms.

Majuli­—the Brahmaputra is slowly chipping away at its biggest island. Erosion has increased over the years because of erratic weather triggering heavy floods.

Photograph by S.H. Patgiri

But, despite all the small and big warnings, it seems India is not ready to pay heed. Dams, roads, hydropower, mining in forest areas…everywhere, an ultra-myopic notion of ‘development’ and commercial exploitation rules the roost. The International Energy Agency expects India to add 26,000 MW of hydel projects by 2030—more than half the installed capacity of 46,209 MW from our existing 207 hydel projects. Some 9,000 MW worth of large hydel projects are under construction. In fact, the Chamoli flash floods primarily hit the Rishi Ganga Power Plant and Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower Project; it was labourers on site who died. On dam and road activity in eco-fragile Himalayan states, environment activist and water expert Himanshu Thakkar has this to say: “Climate change is now accepted wisdom. India’s unique situation is that it’s happening in a geography already prone to this kind of disaster due to human intervention. You can’t have highways in the Himalayas like you have in the plains. What India is doing is ­actually acting like a force multiplier. We had time day before yesterday, we lost it. With every passing day, we are losing more time.”

ALSO READ: What Oil Is Healthy And What’s Not: Choose Wisely

Palmtop Disaster?

Into this dire scenario comes a new development now. In an ironic coincidence, on the same day the IPCC 2021 report was released, India unv­eiled plans to reach for “atmanirbharta” (self-­sufficiency) in edible oils with a Rs 11,000-crore National Edible Oil Mission-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP). Under the mission, India plans to go for massive cultivation of palm oil, an edible vegetable oil derived from the mesocarp of the African oil palm fruit, which is used in a range of food and beauty products and as biofuel. The focus will be the Northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar isl­ands, though the precise areas are yet to be anno­unced. Now, palm oil is recognised globally as one of the most ecologically destructive crops—the decimation of entire rainforest swa­thes in South­east Asian countries owes direc­tly to palm oil. The consequent loss of biodiversity—flora and fauna—too is well documented. This summer, Sri Lanka banned the import of palm oil and ordered the phased elimination of its palm oil plantations in ­favour of less water-intensive, less invasive, more biodiversity-enhancing crops.

ALSO READ: Keep Off The Grass: Don’t Kill Our Grassland

At what cost will India’s new edible oil policy be ushered in? One only needs to consider forest cover statistics to know the dangers. In 2019, about 21.6 per cent of India’s land area—which is 7,12,249 sq km—was designated as being under forest cover. And which are the top five states if you take forest cover as percentage of total geographic area? Mizoram (85.41 per cent), Arunachal Pradesh (79.63 per cent), Meghalaya (76.33 per cent), Manipur (75.46 per cent) and Nagaland (75.31 per cent)…all northeastern states! It’s this sylvan landscape that comes ­directly under risk. Arunachal already bears the burden of ambitious hydel plans on the Brahmaputra system—and now this.

Says Chandra Bhushan, one of India’s foremost environment public policy experts and president, International Forum for Environment, Sustain­ability & Technology (iFOREST): “Cutting natural forests for palm oil cultivation is a bad idea. In fact, sacrificing green cover for any plantation is unadvisable. Even if you want to cultivate palm oil, there are better places to do that. Fifty per cent of India’s geographical area is under agriculture and there are areas suited for palm oil ­ecologically, like coastal regions.”

One counter-­argument could be that natural forests in the Northeast have always been burnt and cut under the old tribal practice of jhum (shifting) cultivation—although the stats would suggest a scenario vastly different from industrialised agriculture. Question is, can India afford to emulate the disastrous example set by Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand and sacrifice its virgin ­forests for what’s perhaps a misguided route-map to self-sufficiency in edible oils. That too, after the “red alert” from IPCC?

Unlike the coastal Southeast Asian countries that chased palm oil exports at great cost to their ecology, no developed economy in the West has embarked on a journey of aggressive oil palm cultivation. Even China, India’s ‘role model-cum-­competition’, hasn’t fully gone that side, despite toying with the idea since the 1980s. Alok Gupta, a China-based journalist, says that’s primarily due to climatic conditions. However, the Chinese Academy of Tropical Agricultural Sciences has, in 2021, developed a variety of palm that could lead the way for industrial-level production of palm oil in Hainan. Should India dirty its hands similarly? Why not plump for healthier native ­alternatives like mustard, groundnut or cottonseed oil…in fact, there’s a long list to choose from.

Victim Country?

In a real sense, India finds itself in solidarity with the Global South when it comes to allocating res­ponsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav welcomed the IPCC report and tweeted that it had come as a “clarion call for developed countries to undertake immediate, deep emission cuts and decarbonisation of their economies.” The West, it is true, has utilised far more than its fair share of the global carbon budget. “Reaching net zero alone is not enough, as cumulative emissions up to net zero det­ermine the temperature that is reached. This is amply borne out in the IPCC ­report,” points out Yadav. “It vindicates India’s position that historical cumulative emissions are the source of the climate crisis.” The environment ministry also cites figures to show India’s cumulative and per capita current emissions are significantly low and far less than its fair share of the global carbon budget. It highlights recent steps, such as the installation of 450 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030, as among measures taken by the government to tackle climate change. And yet, India is also the third-largest emitter of GHGs—it accounts for 2.46 billion metric tonnes of carbon and 6.8 per cent of total global emissions (China and the US top the list.)

Greenhouse gases are a set of gases that absorb infrared radiation, trapping heat in the atmosphere—think water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. The IPCC 2021 rep­ort clarifies for the first time the “delicate bala­nce” between GHG emissions and aerosols—a large ­variety of tiny suspended particles that cool the atmosphere and whose interplay with GHGs ­directly influences monsoon rainfall. “Observed warming is driven by emissions from human act­ivities, with greenhouse gas warming partly mas­ked by aerosol cooling,” says the report, adding that “decreases in global land monsoon precipitation from the 1950s to the 1980s are partly att­ributed to human-caused Northern Hemisphere aerosol emissions, but increases since then have resulted from rising GHG concentrations and decadal to multi-decadal internal variability.”

Carbon would seem to be the main villain here, but that’s not an adequately fleshed-out picture. Says Prof Nandula Raghuram, chair, Internat­ional Nitrogen Initiative, president, Sustainable India Trust, and biotechnologist at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi: “The carbon-centric nature of IPCC policy recomme­ndations can mislead people to think climate change is all about carbon dioxide and methane emissions. But nitrous oxide is a 300 times more powerful greenhouse gas and is even listed as the third most important greenhouse gas in the det­ailed IPCC reports, including the latest (6th) ass­essment report.” Nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide (together termed NOx) and ammonia not only affect the climate, but directly impact health through air and water pollution.

Forest fire—Uttarakhand loses hundreds of acres of green cover every year.

Photograph by PTI

Raghuram organised the Indian scientific community over a decade ago and published the first ever Indian nitrogen assessment in 2017. They established that India needs to limit wastage of nitrogen fertilisers and manures, and that NOx emissions from burning fuels and waste need to be controlled globally. On that basis, the Indian government even led a UN resolution for Sustainable Nitrogen Management in the 4th UN Environment Assembly (2019). Notably, after the IPCC report, on August 16, the Union environment ministry set up a National Nitrogen Steering Committee to implement this resolution in India and lead the process globally.

Says Prof (Dr) Gufran Ullah Beig, scientist and programme director, SAFAR, at the Pune-based Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM): “IPCC reports have been focusing on long-lived GHGs, while culprits also include short-lived ones.” He points out that the IPCC’s emphasis on long-term GHG emissions, which informs the world’s approach, keeps us focused on transportation, fossil fuels, biofuels and industrial activity etc, but concerns related to consumer products also need to be addressed. “There is no accounting happening for short-lived climate-reinforcing agents in India and various developed nations. When we run the climate models, we should have details about atmospheric chemistry too. That is a lacuna IPCC and all nations have to overcome.”

Climate change will affect livelihoods in a much more sweeping way than most people imagine. If lay wisdom holds that the impact will be largely rural-based, on agriculture for instance, it’s time to bust the myth. Extreme events will surely hit farming and hamper the availability of raw material; on the other side, floods in cities and towns will impact industrial activity. The 2017-18 Economic Survey found that the climate crisis could cut farm incomes by up to 15-18 per cent, and up to 20 per cent in areas without irrigation (nearly 60 per cent of India’s net sown area). Many think the conflict is between the hard-nosed economics of development and some woolly notions about pristine nature. But the truth is, the effects of climate change will be ­calamitous on the economy. Think of the losses at one level. Think also of India’s revenue exp­enditure on natural disaster relief, which has had to be ramped up massively in the last one decade. In 2011, Rs 74.31 billion was spent on relief; this increased to Rs 325.38 billion in 2016 and Rs 210.67 billion in 2018, as per official figures. Revenue expenditure refers to expenditure that neither creates assets nor reduces liabilities.

With what concept of balance does India move forward then? Says Chandra Bhushan, “In many ways, this IPCC report reiterates points made by its previous reports, on the influence of human activity on climate. The difference is that scientists are more confident now about their projections.” What can give hope to India, he says, is the fact that it’s on the cusp of a technology transition and green shoots can emerge with a little more push from the government. Like with a transition from fossil fuel-based transportation to electric vehicles and from coal-based thermal plants to renewable energy. Says Bhushan, “If the government pushes for cleaner technology adoption within a committed time period, India could definitely present a story of hope. But efforts have to be concrete and definitive.”

While the bigger commitments for climate change mitigation have to come from governments, responsible consumer behaviour also plays an important role—things like using clean technology, public transportation, buying consumer durables responsibly. “Changes are req­uired at two levels,” says Chandra Bhushan. “One is at the system level, which includes governments and businesses. The second is at the level of the individual. But the major focus has to be on system-level changes. Individuals have hardly any role to play at that level other than to put pressure on the government and businesses. We have to move out of fossil fuels, for instance. That is where public and political pressure can force governments and businesses to change their ways.” We don’t have much time to effect that change. What we now have is better predictive science—even if climate models cannot predict micro- or minutely region-specific phenomena. For that, we have to wait till disaster strikes.

One day it could be Pithoragarh, the next day it could be where you are sitting reading this. Either way, we will be leaving a devastated world for generations to come.


The UN-appointed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a new report summarising the latest authoritative scientific information about global warming. Here are the important takeaways.


The report says almost all of the warming that has occurred since pre-industrial times was caused by the release of heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. Much of that is the result of ­humans burning fossil fuels—coal, oil, wood and natural gas. The ­auth­ors say global temperatures have already risen by 1.1 ˚C since the 19th century, reaching their highest in over 100,000 years, and only a fraction of that increase can have come from natural forces.


The 3,000-plus-page report concludes that ice melt and sea level rise are already accelerating. Wild weather events—from storms to heat waves—are also expected to worsen and become more frequent. Further warming is “locked in” due to the greenhouse gases humans have already released into the atmosphere. That means even if ­emissions are drastically cut, some changes will be “irreversible” for centuries, the report said.


While many of the report’s predictions paint a grim picture of the human impact on the planet and the consequences it will have going forward, the IPCC found that so-called tipping points, like catastrophic ice sheet collapses and the abrupt slowdown of ocean currents, are “low likelihood”, though they cannot be ruled out.


Almost all countries have signed up to the 2015 Paris climate accord, which aims to limit global warming to an increase of 2 ˚C above the pre-industrial average by the year 2100. The agreement says the ­increase ideally would be no more than 1.5 ˚C. Although temperatures are expected to overshoot the 1.5 ˚C target in the next decade, the ­report suggests that warming could be brought back down to this level through what are known as “negative emissions”. That means sucking more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than is added, effectively cooling the planet again. The panel said that could be done starting about halfway through this century but didn’t ­explain how, and many scientists are sceptical it’s possible.



1. Brazilian government data indicates annual deforestation in the Amazon rainforests may have surpassed 10,000 square km for the third straight year, continuing a worrisome jump since President Jair Bolsonaro assumed office. The far-right president has encouraged development of the biome—for crops such as soy—and dismissed global handwringing about its destruction as a plot to hold back the nation’s agribusiness. At the same time, his administration defanged environmental authorities and legislative measures to loosen land protections have advanced, emboldening land grabbers and loggers.

2. A new study, using satellite images of global flooding since 2000, shows that flooding worldwide hits 10 times as many people as previously thought. The study in the journal Nature finds that from 2000 to 2018 ­between 255 and 290 million people were directly affected by floods—which is based on 913 floods with thousands more not counted because of satellite image problems. Population within flooded areas grew 34 per cent since 2000, nearly twice as fast as those outside flooded areas.

3. No more zipping past the Eiffel Tower or through the Latin Quarter without slowing down to soak in the sights: the speed limit on nearly all streets of Paris has been cut to 30 kmph. It’s the latest initiative by a city trying to burnish its climate credentials and transform people’s relationship to their vehicles. Car owners are fuming. Delivery drivers say it will create longer wait times for customers. Taxi drivers say it will drive up rates and hurt business. But polls suggest most Parisians support the idea, notably in hopes that it makes the streets safer and quieter.

(With inputs from Naseer Ganai in Srinagar and Ashwani Sharma in Shimla )