The hottest year so far was 2016. The rise in global temperature and climatic changes have a huge impact on the environment. The Global Environment Outlook (GEO) 2019 - known as the most comprehensive and rigorous assessment on the state of the environment - by the United Nations has warned that damage to the planet is so ominous that people’s health will be increasingly threatened unless urgent action is taken.
Countries across the world are facing the fury of these changes in some form or other – be it drought or storm, spread of diseases caused by extreme weather conditions or loss in farm yield.
What is climate change?
Climate change refers to significant, long-term changes in the global climate. The global climate is the connected system of the sun, the earth, the oceans, wind, rain and snow, forests, deserts and everything people do.
Climate is commonly thought of as the expected weather conditions at a given location over a specified time and can be measured at a given geographic scale by statistics such as average temperatures, average number of rainy days and the frequency of droughts. Climate change refers to changes in these statistics over years, decades, or even centuries.
If climate change and global warming are two different things, global warming is the main cause of climate change. As the planet’s temperature increases more than it would increase naturally, the climate varies and behaves differently. Global warming is the slow increase in the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere. The earth’s atmosphere has always acted like a greenhouse to capture the sun’s heat but now so much heat is being kept inside that the temperature of the earth is going up faster than any time in the past - causing unpredictable changes in climate.
World is warming faster than before
Scientists across the world have been collecting data of the earth’s surface temperature since1880. Temperatures are recorded at many thousands of locations and scientists use these raw measurements to produce records of long-term global surface temperature change. These analyses show that earth’s average surface temperature has increased by more than 1.4-degree F (0.8 degree C) over the past 100 years, with much of this increase taking place over the past 35 years. A temperature change of 1.4-degree F may not look much if one is thinking about a daily or a seasonal fluctuation but it is a significant change when it is a permanent increase - averaged across the entire planet.
According to the UN World Meteorological Organisation, the situation seems to have worsened after 2016. Global temperatures are on course for a 3 to 5 degree C rise in this century, far overshooting a global target of limiting the increase to 2 degree C (3.6F) or less.
At the 2015 Paris climate conference, the countries of the world pledged to work to limit the rise of temperature to 2 degree C, a step that will require a radical reduction in the use of fossil fuels, which are the primary cause of global warming.
A 2018 report by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that this would involve bringing CO2 emissions down by 45% by 2030 from 2010 levels. Beyond 2 degree C, the earth’s non-linear feedback loops and tipping points - such as melting sea-ice and the release of reserves of methane in permafrost and seabed - become very difficult to predict.
The report calls for a root-and-branch detoxifying of human behaviour while insisting that the situation is not unassailable. Food waste for instance which accounts for 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions, could be slashed. The world currently throws away a third of all food produced. In richer nations, more than a half of the food produced goes to waste.
The report makes a strong case for a rapid drawdown in greenhouse gas emissions and pesticide use to improve air and water quality. This will be a difficult task given the lack of international agreement.
Environmental pollution – the biggest danger
The rise in global temperature and in climatic changes have a huge impact on the environment. The UN flagship report, the WMO statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019, published in early March, 2020, shows that increasing land and ocean heat, accelerating sea level rise and melting ice are having a major effect on all aspects of the environment as well as on the health and well-being of the global population.
The report suggests that about a fourth of all premature deaths and diseases worldwide are due to man-made pollution and environmental damages. It warns that deadly emissions, chemicals polluting drinking water and accelerating destruction of ecosystems crucial to the livelihoods of billions of people are driving a worldwide epidemic that hampers the global economy.
Environmental pollution is one of the most serious problems facing humanity and other life forms on our planet today. Environmental pollution is defined as “the contamination of the physical and biological components of the earth/atmosphere system to such an extent that normal environmental processes are adversely affected.”
The report notes that chemicals pumped into the seas cause multi-generational adverse health effects. Land degradation through mega-farming and deforestation occurs in areas which are home to 3.2 billion people. The report claims that air pollution alone causes 6-7 million early deaths annually. The greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise amid a preponderance of droughts, floods and super storms made worse by climbing sea levels. There is a growing political consensus that climate change poses a future risk to billions. The poor environmental conditions cause approximately 25% of global disease and mortality and resulted in around nine million deaths in 2015 alone.
As India awaits a warmer than normal summer in 2020, climate scientists say that large parts of India, except for the Indo-Gangetic plains, have experienced significant warming in the last 60 years due to human-induced climate change. A climatic shift has been noticed with a pronounced rise in the frequency of hot days in the last four decades.
Vimal Mishra of the Water and Climate Lab at the IIT, Gandhinagar, has observed, “We find that more than 60% of India has experienced significant warming during the 1951-2015 observed record. The rise in summer temperature is already more than one degree in the last 60 or so years.”
Several research studies by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) have found that increases in temperature (by about 2 degree C) would reduce potential grain yields in most places. Regions with higher potential productivity (such as northern India) would be relatively less impacted by climate change than areas with lower potential productivity. Climate change is also predicted to lead to boundary changes in areas suitable for growing certain crops.
The decline in crop productivity will reduce India’s GDP growth and depress living standards as average annual temperatures are expected to rise. According to a World Bank report titled 'South Asia's Hotspots: The Impact of Temperature and Precipitation Changes on Living Standards’, “Rising temperatures and changing monsoon rainfall patterns from climate change could cost India 2.8% of GDP and depress the living standards of nearly half the country's population by 2050."
How prepared is India?
India is ranked among the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change. This is due to our tropical and subtropical climate and overwhelming dependence of majority Indians on nature for livelihood. By the end of 2030, India’s temperature is projected to rise by 1.7 to 2-degree C. This will result in an increase in heatwaves by eight folds. Heatwaves are an occupational health hazard, especially for manual labourers. ILO has stated that due to global warming, India is set to lose productivity equivalent to 34 billion jobs. Additionally, climate change is already wreaking havoc in the agrarian sector. In 2019, about 45% of India was under drought and more than 12 states saw devastating floods.
The coastal areas are set to face more devastating cyclones like the ones faced in 2019. With melting glaciers, ice-sheets and increase in ocean temperature, major cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai are going to be severely affected by sea level rise and saltwater intrusion.
Dealing with such a crisis requires strong adaptive and resilient measures. The Indian government has been trying to address the problem through the ‘National Action Plan’ and the ‘State Action Plans’ on climate change. These plans aim to work through eight missions covering agriculture, habitat, energy efficiency, water, afforestation, Himalayan ecosystems, solar energy and strategic knowledge. Despite missing targets, there have been no significant efforts on revamping these missions.
India’s level of preparedness can be judged from the fact that we do not even have micro level data about climate projections or trends. Professor N.H. Ravindranath, who leads the first national study on climate data, reportedly said that for actual planning, adaptation, and helping of communities, there is need for good climate change projections down to the district and village level. Till date, there is no plan for getting such data.