Survival at stake

Climate change is a deviation from traditional weather patterns which have historically been stable and predictable. The change could be in the patterns of precipitation, temperature, wind movements, soil conditions or any other variable that can be attributed to climate. What is worrisome now is that the earth’s climate is changing faster than it has at any point in history. According to the international ‘State of the Climate in 2017’ report, the rate of warming since 1975 has doubled to 1.5-1.8ºC per century from the 1901 average of 0.7-0.9ºC. The Goddard Institute for Space Studies suggests that the Earth has warmed by about 0.8ºC in the past 40 years, while the polar regions have warmed by 2ºC.

In July 2019, the heatwave which hit Europe was unprecedented in its scale and intensity. Many parts of central Europe saw temperatures as high as 42ºC. A study led by the School of Urban and Environmental Engineering at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST), South Korea, concluded that the increase in local greenhouse gas concentrations were responsible for the extreme heat. Specifically, the increase in carbon dioxide is forcing a polar feedback loop which is amplifying warming in higher latitudes, relative to other parts of the world.

Even though the North Pole is more that 3,000 km away from India’s capital, the effects of polar warming have a direct impact on the country and its weather patterns. As warmer temperatures continue to propel sea ice and glacial melt, the supply of freshwater into the oceans also continues to increase. A study by the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research concluded that the supply of freshwater disrupts ocean currents and causes land-sea atmospheric temperature asymmetries which are responsible for erratic and unpredictable monsoon patterns. According to the National Disaster Management Authority, the 2018 floods resulting from the monsoon season killed about 1,310 people, while heavy rain affected the lives of about 7.5 million across the subcontinent; while 20% of the country was experiencing heavy rain, 40% faced conditions of drought. In 2019, data collected by Red Cross shows that six states witnessed heavy flooding, killing at least 250 people, while states like Tamil Nadu faced a rain deficit so severe that its capital city ran out of water. 

International Monitoring Displacement Centre (IMDC) data indicates that in the last eight months, over seven million people have been displaced due to natural disasters around the world. Extreme weather events such as Cyclone Fani that hit India and Bangladesh displaced over 3.4 million. Cyclone Idai wreaked havoc on many parts of Africa, while floods were recorded in Iran. The first half of 2019 also saw unprecedented forest fires in California, the Arctic and more recently, the Amazon.

It seems that each year, there is an increase in the frequency of extreme climate events. Anthropocentric activates which can be broadly clubbed into three sectors — emissions, deforestation and waste management — are mainly responsible for this global temperature rise. It is more important now than ever to remind ourselves of our relationship with our planet and remember that its resources are not solely ours to use or abuse. We must start our battle against climate change by controlling and managing these three sectors of our modern economy.

Menace of emissions 

China, the US, European Union and India together account for 58% of the global CO2 emissions. According to data collected by the Global Carbon Project, China’s share is 27%, while India contributes 7%. Most of India's emissions come from the energy sector which relies heavily on fossil fuels. Coal has fuelled and continues to fuel rapid economic growth in the country, and along with crude oil accounts for about three-fourths of energy generation. 

Historically, there has been a direct correlation between economic growth and a rise in emissions. As more people get access to electricity, mobility and other benefits, more power is require to sustain such infrastructures. This has resulted in a pervasive acceptance in societies that higher emissions are necessary for economic growth. However, it is not necessary that emission must rise with economic development. Nations can achieve economic growth without a parallel growth in its emissions. A report by the World Resource Institute concluded that 21 nations, mostly in Europe, succeeded in decoupling their emissions from their GDP between 2000 and 2014. Countries like Denmark and Sweden have achieved significant growth in their GDPs while considerably reducing their CO2 emissions. Most of this shift comes from reducing coal consumption and adopting renewable energy generation systems. Denmark plans to completely phase out coal power plants by as early as 2021, while Sweden has enforced stringent carbon taxes and enforcement penalties.

Although India has started a carbon trading pilot project in Surat, its success in a country so diverse seems to lack optimism. India’s economy is still coal-based, with focus on achieving high GDP growth and the goal of lifting many people out of poverty. However, there needs to be a more powerful thrust towards the renewable sector as current models of energy production do not seem feasible in the long term without dire consequences to human life. 

The continued use of fossil fuels and its resulting emissions and health hazards are bound to put more people into poverty than to uplift them. Rise in temperatures would cause considerable discomfort to any who does not have access to air-conditioning; increased access to air-conditioning would put more stress on the electricity grid, requiring more power generation, hence creating a positive feedback loop.

Waste management

The rapid pace of development, coupled with growing population, is also resulting in an increase in municipal solid as well as electronic waste. The waste management responses, conversely, have not been able to keep pace with or adapt to such a rapid rise. According to the Press Information Bureau, 7,935 towns and cities in India generate 62 million tonnes (MT) of solid waste annually. Only 43 MT is collected, of which 31 MT is dumped in landfills and the rest (one-sixth of total waste generated) is treated. Most of the waste ends up in landfills, which are themselves a potent source of methane, a potent GHG (greenhouse gas) which traps 28-36 times more heat than CO2. A report by TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) indicated that the rate of waste generation might increase 1.33 per cent each year and by 2047 India could produce up to 260 million tonnes of solid waste a year.

Plastic waste has also become a global threat. The versatility and durability of plastic has significantly improved our quality of life. However, our association with plastic has resulted in significant greenhouse gas emissions and widespread pollution on land and in the oceans.

When it comes to waste management, there is a need to introduce certain levels of governance, control and compliance over how our country manages and disposes of its waste. A circular economy could help us lessen our dependency on virgin plastic while simultaneously reduce pollution in our territorial waters, thereby giving citizens of coastal cities as well as the diverse marine species a much better quality of life. 

Forest cover

The prevailing disruption in traditional weather patterns in India can, with high degree of certainty, be attributed to large-scale deforestation in the subcontinent and the world. A report published in Nature magazine found that both forest cover and rainfall fell simultaneously during 1980-90 and 2000-10. Trees, it seems, are just as important to cloud generation as are the oceans. As deep-rooted trees transfer moisture from the soil into the air through evapotranspiration, the forest creates its own clouds which then return the water back into the soil. Evapotranspiration is one of the main sources of rain in the Amazon rainforest. 

Similarly, dense forests in India used to contribute to the monsoon through evapotranspiration. Now, most of India’s forests have been and are being cut down for infrastructure development, agriculture or animal husbandry, and the effects on rain can be clearly observed. During monsoon, India now witnesses areas of high rainfall as well as drought in the same season. According to government data, in the past 30 years, forest cover of nearly 29,000 km has been lost to encroachment or industrial projects. The forest cover of the entire subcontinent now stands at 21.57 % of the total land area, with dense forests only accounting for 3%. India has ambitious plans to push this number to 33% by 2030 and a positive shift was witnessed this year as the forest cover grew by 1%. 

Environmental displacement

Climate change-induced rise in sea level, increase in frequency of extreme temperature events as well as erratic weather patterns will eventually render many areas of the earth inhabitable, uncultivatable or both. Reduced fertility of land and inhospitable living conditions would force large numbers of people to migrate in order to survive. It is estimated that 200 to 300 million people could be permanently displaced from their homes and forced to seek refuge elsewhere in an ever-increasing bordered world. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in the 1993 State of the World’s Refugees, identified four root causes of refugee flows: political instability; economic tensions; ethnic conflict; and environmental degradation. International and national measures to deal with large-scale climate-induced migration remain underdeveloped. Most climate migrants move from their original place due to reduced fertility of land, drought, or any other event that affects their income. Individuals who migrate due to non-availability of work as a result of climate change fail to be defined by the conventional definition of refugee, and therefore are not even able to seek basic protection on humanitarian grounds.

Shift in international perspective

The fight against climate change is not a new one. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm conference), held in 1972, was the first major conference on environmental issues and marked a significant shift in the international environmental perspective. One of the most important results of the Stockholm conference was the establishment of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). The UNEP provided various other international agencies as well as stakeholders a platform to work on and bring attention to the growing environmental problem. 1992 saw the inception of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD recognised that the conservation of biological diversity was “a common concern of humankind” and an integral part of the development process, while the UNFCCC sought to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” 

India is a member to these Conventions, and has accordingly introduced proactive conservation as well as environmental protection laws. The Environment (Protection) Act 1986 is a powerful legislation and an outcome of the 1972 conference. It aims to provide “speedy responses to events threatening environment and deterrent punishment to those who endanger human environment safety and health.” The Air Act, Water Act, Forest (Conservation) Act and the Wildlife (protection) Act are other laws which provide legal protection to most aspects of our environment. 

Even though stringent international and municipals guidelines, research, data, laws and policy have played a very important role in suppressing the increase in pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss, the legislations alone cannot function effectively unless there is a collective shift in consumer consciousness and the way this global problem is perceived. 

The current free market growth-oriented model has lifted millions out of poverty. However, growth as a result of exploit planetary resources and increasing toxic emissions may not sustain the poverty alleviation targets as it once did. Current growth models could be pushing even more people into poverty. The UNDP estimates that by 2030, more that 100 million people can fall back into poverty due to an increase in climate change events.

The problem is more complex and varied than anything else humanity has faced, and lacks a single simple solution. To begin with, there is an immediate and urgent requirement to change our perception of climate change, to one of climate threat. Many of our planet’s ecosystems have already or are close to reaching their irreversible tipping points. Small acts like using public transportation or consuming lesser electricity do make a difference. However, our free market structures and deeply established supply chain networks, which cater to even the most modest middle-class lifestyle, make it nearly impossible to live in a carbon-neutral way. 

A start in the right direction can be initiated by shifting to renewable energy sources as soon as possible. Businesses have an enormous influence over their supply chain networks and play an important role in acting as levers of change. Consumer demand and a change in business practices would certainly go a long way in helping us limit our emissions and waste. 

Legislative and business policy changes must converge and be sustained over long periods of time in order to limit current climate anomalies. A change in outlook is also necessary. The most drastic changes in the world, be it ending slavery or fighting for independence, have come from community-driven movements. These movements existed because people believed in the seriousness of the issue they were facing. We are now facing a new threat of climate change which is putting our survival and that of future generations in jeopardy. If we do not treat climate change as a crisis, we might be heading for a catastrophe. 

What you can do to turn the tide

Encourage discussions on climate crisis 
Use energy and water resources wisely 
Reduce meat intake; learn about sustainable foods
Consume less, waste less
Exercise rights as consumers and demand sustainable products
Become politically active and vote for ‘Green’ leaders
Demand climate action within your community and during the elections 

Direct correlation

In the past 30 years, the number of natural loss events in the world have more than doubled — from less than 400 in 1995 to about 950 in the first eight months of 2019.  

It would not be far-fetched to consider a link between the increase in climate events and the consistent warming of the Earth.

Annual average temperature 

The 10 warmest years on record have all been in the past 20 years, while the four warmest on record have occurred in the past five years, since 2014. 

India has experienced consistent rise in temperatures since 1990s with a more drastic and exponential rise in recent years. 

In 2017, average temperatures were 2°C higher than those 20 years ago.

2018 was the the sixth warmest year on record.  

The author is Programme Officer, Centre for Environmental Law, WWF-India