Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

Climate Change and India

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Ambassador Ajai Malhotra, IFS (Retd)
    Venue: IIT Jodhpur
    Date: September 11, 2015

Professor C.V.R. Murty, Director of IIT, Jodhpur
Respected Professors,
Dear Students.


Thank you for inviting me to address this illustrious gathering on "Climate Change and India” as also for the warm and generous hospitality extended to me by IIT Jodhpur.

The Industrial Revolution that started two and a half centuries ago resulted in a marked increase in the impact of human activity on planet Earth, bringing significant changes in its wake. Increasing anthropogenic activity since then has led to environmental deviations and even more dramatic modifications could follow in our lifetime unless we urgently take corrective steps.

The Earth’s environment acquired salience as an issue of international concern with the convening of the UN Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972. It brought environmental issues into the ambit of international diplomacy and led to gradually enhanced global environmental co-operation. Addressing the Conference, Indira Gandhi drew attention to the link between environment and development, highlighting that "the environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty”.

The Conference led to the establishment of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which in 1982 convened in Nairobi a ‘UNEP Session of a Special Character: Ten Years after Stockholm’. It recognized that most global environmental challenges remained inadequately addressed and environmental threats had grown, including from acid rain, air, soil and water pollution, desertification and deforestation, ozone layer depletion. Early signs of the disruptive potential of climate change were also noted.

As fallout of the Special Session, the UN Secretary-General appointed the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983. Its Report, "Our Common Future”, was released in 1987 and sought to balance human and environmental well-being and reconcile economic development with environmental protection. It promoted the concept of "sustainable development”, which it defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". This definition viewed environment and development through the prism of "needs", in particular those of the world's poor, and highlighted the notion of inter-generational equity.

By the time the UN Conference on Environment and Development was convened at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, one could not talk of the environment without referring in the same breath to development. That Summit adopted the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and Agenda 21, which reinforced the importance of finding ways to generate economic growth and address the overriding priority of development for developing countries and doing so without hurting the environment. Two important legal instruments, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity, were also opened for signature at Rio.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

The UNFCCC is based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities of its ratifying states. In the negotiations leading to the adoption of the UNFCCC, India consistently highlighted issues relating to equity, historical responsibilities and per capita emissions as the basis for a differentiated approach to the collective arrangements being considered. The notions of fairness, justice and equity underlying its differentiation between developed and developing countries in terms of responsibilities and capabilities, remain as relevant today as when first agreed to.

International climate change negotiations boil down to how the world addresses environmental concerns and shares the costs and benefits of enhanced environmental protection. Such negotiations have sought to work out an international consensus on (a) who is causing the problem and therefore who is responsible for climate change, both historically and currently; (b) what needs to be done to tackle the problem; and (c) who should bear the main burden for corrective action between wealthy, technologically advanced, industrialized nations and not so well off developing countries.

Since the developed countries have historically been responsible for the harmful Greenhouse Gases (GHG) emissions and remain their main emitters on a per capita basis even today, the primary responsibility devolves on them for taking the tough measures needed to address the problem. This is more so since they also have the requisite financial resources and technological capacities to do so. Developed countries are also to provide new and additional financial resources and technological cooperation on preferential terms to developing countries to enable many of them to more effectively respond to climate change. In contrast, developing countries cannot for the time being accept binding mitigation commitments, though they could enter into contractual agreements to implement mitigation actions provided incremental costs are met by the developed world. Developing countries cannot be required to divert scarce resources from their overriding priorities of poverty eradication and economic development.

The Challenge of Climate Change

Over the years, scientific evidence has grown that anthropogenic emissions of GHGs (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and several industrial gases) are changing the Earth’s climate. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed. Snow, ice, permafrost and glaciers have reduced at the poles and elsewhere. Sea level has risen and oceans have become more acidic by absorbing more CO2. Several extreme weather events have intensified. Indeed, current GHG emissions are the highest in human history while atmospheric CO2 is at its highest level since at least 800,000 years. Over the last century, global temperatures have gone up +0.8°C and sea levels by 20 centimetres. Without serious efforts to curb GHG emissions, temperatures could by the end of this century be +4°C above pre Industrial Revolution levels.

There is now overwhelming certainty that increasing GHG concentration in the atmosphere due to human activities has been the dominant cause of the observed warming of our planet since 1950. The emissions already in the atmosphere, together with the GHG’s to be emitted in the future, imply that the climate will continue to change. Irrespective of future GHG emissions, further warming is inevitable, largely due to past emissions and climate inertia.

Much of the latest scientific evidence of climate change derives from the 5th Assessment Synthesis Report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and related documents. That Report emphasizes that risks arising from warming of +2°C to +4°C above pre-industrial levels pose challenges to human security, affecting development, food and water supplies, health, infrastructure, and livelihoods across many parts of the world, including India. Curbing emissions to maintain rise in global temperatures below +2°C needs urgent international action; yet, even if successful, the benefits to the global climate will only emerge in the latter half of the 21st century.

Impact on Lives, Infrastructure and Settlements

The harsh consequences of climate change will intensify challenges to development, especially in India, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries. Natural hazards and vulnerabilities arising from economic, social and environmental circumstances already make India one of the more disaster-prone countries of the world. Climate change related risks will increasingly affect the Indian subcontinent, including via sea level rise, cyclonic activity and changes in temperature and precipitation patterns. Rising sea levels would submerge low-lying islands and coastal lands and contaminate coastal freshwater reserves. Melting Himalayan glaciers would reduce downstream water supply in many of India’s important rivers in the dry season, impacting millions. A warmer atmosphere will spread tropical diseases and pests to new areas.

Moreover, India’s urban population, projected to rise from 377 million in 2011 to 745 million in 2041, is already seriously challenging services and infrastructure in stressed Indian cities. Indeed, most Asian cities with over 1 million inhabitants are already exposed to water related hazards. Climate change will increase the risks of death, injury and ill-health and disrupt livelihoods in low-lying coastal zones due to cyclones and coastal and inland flooding, storm surges and sea-level rise. Increased river, coastal and urban floods could cause considerable loss of life and widespread damage to property, infrastructure and settlements. Today’s TV news showed us how unprecedented floods due to heavy rainfall are ravaging parts of Japan.

The mean global sea level rise in this century and its future rate of growth will very likely exceed that of the past few decades. Moreover, coastal populations and assets exposed to risks in Asia will increase significantly due to urbanisation and economic development. By the 2070’s, Asian coastal cities most at risk will include Chennai, Dhaka, Kolkata, and Mumbai. Low lying, densely populated coastal areas of India will also be at increased risk of storm surges.

Disasters displaced over 166 million people worldwide during 2008-2013 and this number is likely to rise due to the impact of global warming. In 2008, the breaking of the Kosi River embankments displaced over 3.5 million in India and disrupted power and transport across huge areas. The floods in the Indus River in 2010 inundated a fifth of Pakistan, affecting 21 million people. Sea level rise has already submerged low-lying islands in the Sunderbans, displacing thousands. Around seven million people are projected to be displaced due to, among other factors, submersion of parts of Chennai and Mumbai, if global temperatures rise beyond +2°C.

While gas, oil and water extraction are common reasons for delta subsidence around the world, in South Asia dams are predominantly responsible for it as they trap the sediment that is crucial for maintaining healthy river deltas. Most large Asian deltas too are sinking and doing so much faster than the rise in the global sea-level.

Extreme rainfall and flooding will cause deaths, illnesses and mass displacement. The impact of climate change on tropical cyclones would vary by region, but projections across models agree on more frequent and heavy rainfall days and that an increase in extreme rainfall events related to monsoons is very likely in South Asia. Alteration in the Indian monsoon pattern can also be expected, with the volume of rainfall during the monsoon season set to rise. However, not only would there be more water, the way in which it is delivered would also change. Moreover, while the number of rainy days is expected to be less, the intensity of rainfall would be more. Record high temperatures are already occurring more often. Temperature trends too show that the frequency of hot days in India is likely to increase further in the future.

The severe flooding in Mumbai in 2005 suggests interaction between climate change and other stressors. The flash floods in Kedarnath in 2013 and Srinagar in 2014 also bring out the need for considerably better disaster preparedness. The current floods in Assam are a calamity that annually takes lives, harms livelihoods and damages infrastructure. In many instances, restoring forests, floodplains and wetlands are crucial to address annual flooding by rivers. Floods due to glacial lake outbursts are another emerging threat in parts of the Himalayas.

Impact on Human Health

Extreme weather events often also collapse electricity, water supply, and health and emergency services. Moreover, increased heat-related mortality and heat stroke due to rising and extreme temperatures could undermine the modest progress made in recent decades by South Asian countries in tackling disease, malnutrition and early deaths. Disease causing pathogens and parasites will multiply faster at higher temperatures, escalating the incidence of many tropical diseases. Japanese encephalitis and dengue fever outbreaks are also associated in India with high temperature and rainfall. Malaria prevalence in India has been linked to rainfall patterns. Studies show an association between higher temperatures, heavy rainfall and outbreaks of diarrhoea and cholera.

Urban populations will also suffer greater heat stress. In urban areas, where child mortality is already high, extreme temperatures will lead to more deaths. Mental disorders and post-traumatic stress syndrome could also be seen in disaster-struck areas. Contaminated urban flood waters will increase exposure to disease and many toxic compounds.

Impact on Food Production and Livelihoods

Climate change will seriously impact global food production as drought, increased unpredictability of precipitation, and rising temperatures would reduce global crops yields, while warming and acidification of the oceans would affect marine wildlife and fisheries. Most of the food-insecure are in South Asia, where currently over 400 million poor and undernourished people live. Climate change will disproportionately hurt many of them. More erratic rainfall in parts of India could lower rice yields and lead to higher food prices and living costs, while increased drought related water and food shortages linked to rising and extreme temperatures may increase malnutrition and worsen rural poverty. Over 55% of Indian rural households depend on agriculture for a living and, with fisheries and forestry, it is amongst the larger contributors to India’s GDP. Many Indians who earn livelihoods in coastal regions will also be affected.

Heat stress could lead to substantial food yield and production declines. Sorghum production, for example, is expected to decline by 14%. In the Indo-Gangetic plains, which produce 90 million tonnes of wheat a year or 14-15% of annual global production, projections indicate a substantial fall (up to 51%) in yields unless there is a shift in crop varieties and management practices. Climate-related food productivity decline will also impact livelihoods and exports. In Bangladesh, these factors could potentially cause a net 15% increase in poverty by 2030. Heat stress would also decrease labour productivity.

On the other hand, there is also high agreement amongst scientists, though only a medium level of evidence, that cooler regions are likely to benefit from warmer temperatures leading to an increase in arable area. Climate change may also boost wheat production in some hilly areas, where warmer temperatures would make it possible to grow at least two crops annually of maize and wheat.

Climate change will also negatively impact livelihoods through its effects on ecosystems, some of which are highly vulnerable. The geographic range, seasonal activities and migration patterns of many land, freshwater and marine species have shifted in response to on-going climate change. Abundance of species has changed. Permafrost degradation has been reported for parts of the Tibetan Plateau. Earlier greening has been observed in Himalayan forests and could increase their vulnerability to wildfires. Coral reefs off Lakshadweep and Andamans are bleaching due to higher sea temperatures.

Low and middle income countries suffer nine out of ten disaster-related deaths. However, there is a tendency to avoid or postpone disaster prevention expenditures, which counts less with voters compared to post-disaster assistance. The return from disaster prevention is invariably better than from reconstruction. It is estimated that spending $6 billion a year on prevention could save $360 billion by 2030. Disasters cost India $10 billion every year and disaster risk reduction is a smart investment that needs to be made.

Responding through Adaptation and Mitigation

The response to climate change has to be through both adaptation and mitigation. We must adapt our societies to prepare for some climate change risks. Adaptation delivers many immediate and future benefits, but has its limits. Improving ecosystem resilience and helping local communities is a low-regrets path to successful adaptation, especially in India. Opportunities for implementing low-regrets adaptation measures emerge, for example, by reducing water use via drip irrigation and water recycling; enhancing water harvesting and water storage; planting drought-resistant crop varieties; enabling cities to cope with increasingly frequent extreme weather events; building new infrastructure to protect coastal cities from sea-level rise; using more porous materials for berms/footpaths in urban settings; improving land governance and ensuring security of land tenure; boosting disaster-relief preparedness; building social protection systems and safety nets; raising skill levels for better absorption of new technologies; and involving stakeholders from the outset in planning processes.

The key to effective adaption lies in empowering individuals and communities and backing assurances with financial and technological resources. Two-way flow of information and perspectives is vital. Vulnerable local communities should have the opportunity to present their grassroots perspective to policy makers. In turn, scientific information needs to be couched and shared in a simple manner appropriate to local context. Local institutions need to have a meaningful dialogue with scientists, government officials, policy makers and community members. Huge gaps in climate change knowledge-sharing persist and have led to adaptation information not reaching the most vulnerable communities. This should be corrected. Moreover, many LDCs and SIDSs also need help in protecting themselves from climate disruption and adapting to the challenges of energy transition.

Mitigation efforts must be intensified given the early benefits they can deliver. The world needs to significantly reduce GHG emissions to limit the magnitude of climate change. There are several ways of doing so, including by switching from conventional fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) to low or renewable carbon energy sources such as wind, solar, ocean, geothermal, hydroelectric, and nuclear energy, as also by energy conservation and more efficient energy usage (e.g., via more fuel efficient vehicles, spread of Metro mass transportation to more Indian cities, and use of less energy consuming LED bulbs and home appliances) and reducing energy wastage, as well as by more effective urban planning (so as to lessen vehicle usage and emissions) and better building design. Mitigation can also be achieved by increasing the capacity of carbon sinks, e.g., through reforestation and afforestation, while removal and burial of carbon dioxide can also be explored.

India has one of the lowest rates of energy intensity of GDP growth. India’s historic and current levels of per capita GHG emissions remain the lowest amongst the G20, which constitute the major world economies, even though in volume terms it is now the third-largest GHG emitter in the world, after China and USA. India continues to face massive development challenges to tackle which it requires a high level of sustained economic growth. It was not a major GHG emitter in 1992, but is today in the spotlight for its rising GHG emissions. India’s per capita GHG emissions remain a fraction of that of all major emitters and it does not want to pursue the environmentally harmful development unwittingly followed by developed countries in their process of industrialization. However, India cannot finance the huge investments needed to enhance its capacity to adapt to climate change unless its economy grows at a fast tempo. India seeks to meet the climate change challenge by expanding the use of low carbon and renewable technologies and improving energy efficiency of buildings, factories, appliances, etc. In the long run some low-carbon development options may be less costly for India and could offer new economic opportunities. Inclusive growth too is integral to an effective climate change policy for India and studies in India show that low carbon growth pathways are consistent with inclusive growth.

Looking to the Paris Conference of Parties (COP) of UNFCCC

The year 2015 is critical for addressing sustainable development and climate change. In mid-July, the 3rd International Financing for Development Conference was held in Addis Ababa but has regrettably not come out with fresh commitments by the developed world on climate finance. World leaders will shortly assemble at the UN at New York to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals. In end November they will convene in Paris the 21st Conference of Parties of UNFCCC (COP21) to, hopefully, adopt a new climate accord.

A Post-2020 arrangement must be transparently worked out via an inclusive process by States Parties at COP21 at Paris. The longer we delay changing course, the higher the financial burden and greater the climate disruption we will have to face. To have a good chance of keeping temperature rise under +2°C by the end of this century, GHG emissions levels in 2050 need to be 40%-70% lower than in 2010, and near zero by 2100.

We had hoped for ambitious announcements by developed countries of their ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDCs) comprising their mitigation targets and provision of finance, technology transfer and capacity-building support to developing countries. However, those announced so far have been quite disappointing and well below expectations, giving rise to serious concerns. USA has pledged to cut its carbon emissions from a 2005 baseline by 26%-28% by 2025, i.e. much below the EU commitment level (reducing GHG emissions by 40% by 2030 from 1990 levels, increasing energy efficiency by 27% and the share of renewable energy by 27%), which itself was less than expectation. Our developed country partners must do more to reduce their CO2 emissions and assist developing countries meet climate disruption challenges. China’s very conservative INDC target has 2030 as an approximate peaking date for its carbon emissions, by when China’s per capita emissions would be comparable to present EU emissions. This too is a relatively meaningless commitment; even most Chinese experts believe it would peak earlier, perhaps by 2025. Overall, unless commitments are significantly enhanced, the Paris agreement will not be able to cap global warming to +2°C.

A Green Climate Fund was set up in 2009 to make critical technologies freely available, but contributions to it have so far been a measly $10 billion, compared to its target of climate finance of $100 billion per year by 2020.

Contours of a possible INDC for India

India is taking actions to fulfill its pledge made at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 to bring down the emission intensity of its GDP by 20-25% by 2020 over 2005 levels. Its response to climate change must be guided by its national plans, programmes and priorities, not by the push and pull of international negotiations. It should encompass enhanced adaptation measure and also mitigation measures that restrict GHG emissions without compromising its development compulsions, more so if incremental costs and technologies for its mitigation efforts are borne by the Green Climate Fund or the developed world.

India’s per capita carbon emission footprint is small. It has recently doubled its clean energy tax on coal, set up a National Adaptation Fund and assigned funds for mega solar projects as also for solar parks on canal banks. India hopes to significantly enhance the share of renewable energy in electricity generation from 6% to 15% of its energy mix by 2022; it can clearly set a higher target for 2030. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced India’s plans to generate 175 GW of electricity from new and renewable sources of energy by 2020, including 100 GW from solar energy. Again, looking ten years ahead, India as a solar rich country can set an even more ambitious target for 2030.

India can achieve a similar level of well-being as the developed world without going down a path of reckless and wasteful consumption. It has in the past indicated that its per capita emissions would never exceed those of the developed countries, including their historical emissions. It is also prepared to share its technologies with others, as seen from its offer of free-of-cost remote sensing satellite data to other SAARC countries and its readiness to develop a satellite specifically for the South Asian region by 2016.

India’s INDC should be ambitious enough to let India occupy the moral high ground on the climate change issue, without being far-fetched and unachievable. As its INDC, India could consider announcing in the next few weeks (a) an emission intensity target for 2030; (b) an ambitious renewable energy target for 2030 (building on its target of 175GW capacity addition by 2020); (c) an energy efficiency target for 2030 (extrapolating its current target of saving 10,000 MW by 2020); and (d) specifying enhanced targets for 2030 as regards (a)-(c) strictly subject to specific new and additional funding and technology cooperation on preferential terms being made available from the developed world or via the Green Climate Fund.

The 21st COP in Paris must deliver a significantly better outcome than aggregating the largely disappointing INDCs announced so far. Agreement at Paris would also have to be followed up with concerted actions so as to help secure for all a better life in a clean, safe and healthy environment.

I look forward to responding to your questions. Thank you