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IPCC report rings warning bells for India

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IPCC report rings warning bells for India

As far as India is concerned, we have a double burden now. We have to build resilience in our economy, infrastructure and social systems to deal with the increasing impacts of extreme weather events. At the same time, we have to act on mitigation measures…

IPCC report rings warning bells for India

Thinking Point

AK Singh

Without drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, several parts of the world including areas in India will become unliveable. At least 3.5 crore Indians could be victims of annual coastal flooding by 2050. The number will grow to 4.5-5 crore by the turn of the century. Urban centres of India will bear the brunt of the climate crisis as they will see the population doubling in another two decades. The concentration of population in cities will make them vulnerable to climate change events. The rise in temperature could see India’s rice output dwindle by 10%, while maize output may fall by a quarter.

The last few years saw extreme weather events threatening lives and livelihoods in the country. The country has been witnessing erratic monsoon rains, frequent heatwaves, powerful cyclones, and shrinking Himalayan glaciers. The biggest threat for India from climate change will be superstorms that appear frequently along India’s long coastlines. The melting of ocean ice will threaten several cities along the coast including Mumbai. Unless there are immediate and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting global warming to close to 1.5 degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times will be beyond reach, the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released recently has shown.  The report Climate Change 2021 The Physical Science Basis by ‘Working Group I’ is the first instalment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), which will be completed in 2022. The IPCC, a United Nations body, has three working groups: Working Group I, dealing with the physical science basis of climate change; Working Group II, dealing with impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; and Working Group III, dealing with the mitigation of climate change.  The current report has been approved by 195 member governments of the IPCC. The reports of the other two Working Group contributions will be finalised in 2022 and the AR6 Synthesis Report will be completed in the second half of 2022.

At the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world had agreed to limit the global temperature rise in this century to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But this IPCC report shows that the emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are responsible for approximately 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming since 1850-1900, and finds that, averaged over the next 20 years, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. It warned that without sharp emission cuts in the coming decades, the threshold of 2 degrees C will be “exceeded during the 21st century.” The report indicates that in the coming decades the impacts of climate change will increase in all regions and for 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, there will be “increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons” while at 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health. A statement from IPCC says, for the first time, the Sixth Assessment Report provides a more detailed regional assessment of climate change, including a focus on useful information that can inform risk assessment, adaptation, and other decision-making, and a new framework that helps translate physical changes in the climate – heat, cold, rain, drought, snow, wind, coastal flooding and more – into what they mean for society and ecosystems. The findings of its latest report are bleak — climate breakdown is happening at a rapid pace and the impact will be more severe than was predicted earlier.

In 2018, the IPCC’s special report Global Warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius had projected that global warming is likely to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052 under business-as-usual scenarios. But with the new report, the timelines have now been made more definitive and the global temperature is expected to reach or exceed the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold of warming by 2040.  Govindasamy Bala, professor at Divecha Centre for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru pointed out that the messaging on human influence on climate change is very strong in the current report. “There is also some emphasis on the unprecedented speed of climate change in the AR6 compared to AR5,” Bala claimed. “Compared to the 2018 Special Report on 1.5 degrees (which said we will reach 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040) this report says it’s going to happen in the next 20 years with a midpoint of 2030. So, the time frame for reaching 1.5 is advanced by 10 years compared to the 2018 Special Report. The new assessment is based on more sophisticated calculations,” he added. “The historical warming assessed in AR6 is 1.1 degrees C, about 0.3 degrees more than in the AR5 assessment. AR5 was based on temperature records of 2011 and a decade has passed since then. The last decade was warmer than the previous assessment period. There were improvements in observational records which also added to the historical warming,” he pointed out.

Abinash Mohanty, a Programme Lead in the Risks and Adaptation team at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a think-tank working on environmental issues, said that the IPCC’s latest report reiterated the “urgency of stepping up climate action and identifying the need to map the compounded impacts of extreme events. The report suggests that the NDCs  (nationally determined contributions) will not be sufficient to mitigate the impacts of a 1.5 degree Celsius breach. The IPCC acknowledges that human-induced climate change is significantly disrupting the land-use surface attributes that are leading to the intensification of extreme events.” He added: “Indian sub-continent will have a 20 percent surge in extreme rainfall events. The projections suggest that rainfall will become incessant and erratic leading to floods, depressions will intensify into deep depressions, and cyclonic events will become more frequent across eastern and western coasts.” “Further, heat extremes and drought events will be the new normal across South Asia and India. Identification of compounded impacts of extreme weather events with the help of a climate risk atlas and climate-proofing of infrastructures becomes a national imperative for emerging economies like India,” he warned.

The IPCC report also concludes that the global mean sea levels will continue to rise over the 21st century, even in the lowest emissions scenarios because of the warming of the ocean, as well as the melting of ice sheets and glaciers. For India, which has a coastline of over 7,500 kilometres, this will mean a significant threat to those living in areas vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise. For instance, across six Indian port cities – Chennai, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Surat and Visakhapatnam – 28.6 million people could be exposed to coastal flooding if sea levels rise by 50 centimetres and the assets exposed to flooding will be worth about USD 4 trillion. Chandra Bhushan, who is the president and chief executive officer of the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology (iFOREST), a think-tank, said: “As far as India is concerned, we have a double burden now. We have to build resilience in our economy, infrastructure and social systems to deal with the increasing impacts of extreme weather events. At the same time, we have to act on mitigation measures.”  “The IPCC report is a warning for our economy and human life. Things that were predicted to happen far ahead in the future are now expected to happen much sooner, including intense heatwaves, monsoon disruptions, cloud bursts, extreme rain, etc. The situation will only worsen if we do not act faster and decisively,” said Bhushan.

Climate change is causing widespread disruption in nature, affecting billions of lives. People and ecosystems least able to cope are the hardest hit, emphasises the IPCC report. The report is a stern warning about the perils of inaction, said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee. “It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet. Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks,” he said. The planet will face multiple climate hazards in the next 20 years with a 1.5°C increase in average global temperature. Even temporary breaches of this limit could trigger additional impacts that will present risks for society. The summary of the IPCC report for policymakers, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, was released recently.

Heatwaves, floods and droughts are already testing the tolerance thresholds of plants and animals, triggering mass mortalities among trees and corals. These extreme weather events are occurring simultaneously, resulting in impacts that are unmanageable. They have pushed millions of people into poverty as well as food and water insecurity in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and in the Arctic. To avoid losses of life, biodiversity and infrastructure, ambitious action is needed. The world needs to effect deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The progress on adaptation has been uneven and inadequate, leaving gaps between action and commitments. The climate crisis has been accentuated by unsustainable use of natural resources, growing urbanisation, social inequalities, losses and damages from extreme weather events, and the Covid-19 pandemic. The report offers an assessment of climate change impact, risks and adaptation in cities, which are home to more than 50% of the global population. Health, lives, livelihoods, property, and critical infrastructure have been affected by extreme weather events such as heatwaves, storms, droughts, flooding, and rising sea levels. Though it is a global challenge, climate change needs local solutions. The report offers extensive regional information to support climate resilient development. The report says climate resilient development poses a challenge even at current warming levels. It will become even more difficult if global warming exceeds the 1.5°C global warming limit. This underlines the urgent need for climate action that is focused on equity and justice. Effective climate change adaptation and emission cuts need adequate funding, technology transfer, and political commitment.

The latest IPCC report has also devoted a separate chapter to extreme weather events, emphasising compound events: Compound extreme events are the combination of multiple drivers and/or hazards that contribute to societal or environmental risk. Examples are concurrent heatwaves and droughts, compound flooding (a storm surge in combination with extreme rainfall and/or river flow), compound fire weather conditions (a combination of hot, dry, and windy conditions), or concurrent extremes at different locations. “It is virtually certain that hot extremes (including heatwaves) have become more frequent and more intense across most land regions since the 1950s, while cold extremes (including cold waves) have become less frequent and less severe, with high confidence that human-induced climate change is the main driver of these changes,” said the report. “Some recent hot extremes observed over the past decade would have been extremely unlikely to occur without human influence on the climate system. Marine heatwaves have approximately doubled in frequency since the 1980s (high confidence), and human influence has very likely contributed to most of them since at least 2006,” it said. The IPCC report warned that if global warming increases, some compound extreme events, with a low likelihood (of occurrence) in past and current climate, will become more frequent, and there will be a higher likelihood that events with increased intensities, durations and/or spatial extents, unprecedented in the observational record, will occur (high confidence). The report states 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 greenhouse gas concentrations and decadal to multi-decadal internal variability.”

Bala explained that the new report clarified for the first time the “delicate balance” between aerosols and GHG emissions and their influence on monsoon rainfall by noting that “observed warming was driven by emissions from human activities, with greenhouse gas warming partly masked by aerosol cooling.” “Greenhouse gas-induced warming will lead to intensification of rainfall but observational records show a decrease in monsoon rainfall between 1950 and 1980. So, this report clarifies that in the 30 year period the aerosol was stronger than the greenhouse effect. After that in the past three decades, the effect of GHGs and aerosols are almost balanced so we don’t see any trend in monsoon rainfall in the last 20 to 30 years. In the next couple of decades this delicate balance may continue but by mid-century and end of the century the report projects we will see an increase in monsoon rainfall,” Bala expanded. Alok Sharma, a minister in the United Kingdom’s government and the president of the upcoming COP 26, said, in a statement on the IPCC report: “The science is clear, the impacts of the climate crisis can be seen around the world and if we don’t act now, we will continue to see the worst effects impact lives, livelihoods and natural habitats.” “Our message to every country, government, business and part of society is simple. The next decade is decisive, follow the science and embrace your responsibility to keep the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius alive. We can do this together, by coming forward with ambitious 2030 emission reduction targets and long-term strategies with a pathway to net-zero by the middle of the century, and taking action now to end coal power, accelerate the roll-out of electric vehicles, tackle deforestation and reduce methane emissions,” he said.

“While action on adaptation (and mitigation) is being taken across the world, there are growing gaps with regard to avoiding and reducing risks, as well as dealing with impacts and risks that are not avoided (or reduced) due to financial, institutional, technical constraints. For example, flood impacts and risks are not reduced to zero (there is a residual risk) everywhere, as it is generally not possible to protect against rare and expensive floods. E.g., in many places around the world flood protection is up to 50 years. More has been considered too costly. With climate risks rising, this is however being reconsidered,” said IIASA’s Reinhard Mechler and lead author on Chapter 17 of the report. “The 1.5-degree Celsius global ambition on climate mitigation is real: beyond this warming level, impacts and risks will become increasingly existential and irreversible,” Mechler said. More than any other previous reports, the AR6 installment also goes into greater detail on the linkages between human-induced climate change (including more frequent and intense extreme events) and its impacts on the physical health and mental health of people, focusing strongly on interactions between climate, ecosystems (including their biodiversity) and human society. “Studies of climate anxiety are still fairly small in number, but evidence suggests that those who are more at risk of climate impacts, and younger adults (as compared to older adults), show higher levels (of climate anxiety),” IPCC AR6 WGII lead author Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster, USA, said. The WGII report recognises climate justice, equity and indigenous knowledge and local knowledge as important elements for adaptation, weaving in risks associated with complex, compound and cascading extremes and sharply underlines the dangers of getting adaptation wrong by pointing to “increasing evidence” of maladaptation, most often an unintended consequence, across many sectors and regions.

Maladaptations are actions that may lead to increased risk of adverse outcomes such as increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased or shifted vulnerability to climate change and inequity. The report interlinks historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism to drivers of vulnerability of ecosystems and people to climate change. “We have enough evidence to show that past development trajectories, and histories of colonialism and resource extraction, shape present vulnerability and adaptive capacity,” tweeted Chandni Singh, lead author of the Asia chapter of the assessment. “Further, current actions shape future adaptation pathways. What we do now will either move us forward towards climate resilience or lock us into maladaptive outcomes,” Singh said. WGII author and Wildlife Institute of India scientist Gautam Talukdar says that “most of the time, you have many unintended consequences whenever you enlarge any scheme to a mega-scale and in different geographies. An adaptation for one geographic zone could become a maladaptation in other geographies. There is no one-size-fits-all adaptation option and the available options should be integrated with other agreements and policies that India is a signatory to, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Paris Agreement, among others.”

Talukdar described the dangers of ill-planned and unscientific tree plantation programmes in India. “You can’t raise tree plantations everywhere. If you start planting trees along the coastline because there is space available, you change the habitat of this coastline and convert a beach habitat to forested habitat which can have unintended dangerous consequences for biodiversity, such as impairing the nesting grounds for olive ridley turtles in the coastline, which has happened in Odisha in India.” “The other thing that can happen is the moment you start planting along the beaches, because the soil becomes more stable in those areas, the water has to ingress in other places and erosion will take place in those other places,” Talukdar said. A majority of plantation programmes in India, he says, also rely on species that grow fast and are easy to maintain, such as eucalyptus, Prosopis sp etc. “They do perform the function of harnessing carbon but they also impact the biodiversity of that area.” The concerns on tree plantation efforts also come amid recent discussions on such efforts in India’s savannah grasslands that harm biodiversity. Environmentalist Ravi Chellam, who was not associated with the IPCC assessment underscores that the report presents evidence of the long-term negative consequences of human actions in the name of economic development and even adaptation to climate change. “This is especially true with cases where technological and civil engineering-driven solutions have been implemented to deal with what are essentially ecological and environmental issues. Sea walls to protect coastal communities is a good example of how we end up destroying local ecology and even livelihoods, while diverting the problem of coastal erosion and rising sea level to other locations. Widespread and sustained irrigation in marginal lands ends up destroying the soil, severely depleting groundwater resources and introducing diseases to which the local communities have not been exposed before,” Chellam, CEO, Metastring Foundation and member, Biodiversity Collaborative, informed. “Destroying natural ecosystems, especially various types of forests and then trying to compensate for this loss by creating species-poor plantations is another example of how our approach to climate change mitigation ends up creating more problems than it solves. The report has very strongly emphasised the value of functional and interconnected natural ecosystems for mitigation of climate change and this has a strong message for the development model that India pursues,” he added.

In a first, the report, focusing on solutions, provides a solutions framework (Climate Resilient Development or CRD) that combines climate adaptation with actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) to improve nature’s and people’s well-being. For Asia, options such as climate-smart agriculture, ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction, investing in urban blue-green infrastructure present opportunities to meet adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable development goals simultaneously.  While public finance is an important enabler for adaptation, current global financial flows in adaptation, including in the private and public sectors, are insufficient for adaptation, especially for developing countries. Nature-based solutions, such as the restoration of Bhojtal wetlands in Bhopal in central India, expand the climate solutions portfolio but they cannot be regarded as an alternative to, or a reason to delay, deep emission cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Nature-based solutions are themselves vulnerable to climate change impacts, the report states.

The Indian government, meanwhile, welcomed the IPCC report. India’s Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav tweeted that the report is a “clarion call for the developed countries to undertake immediate, deep emission cuts and decarbonisation of their economies.” India, in a statement after the release of the report, said that the developed countries have usurped far more than their fair share of the global carbon budget. “Reaching net-zero alone is not enough, as it is the cumulative emissions up to net-zero that determine the temperature that is reached. This has been amply borne out in the IPCC report. It vindicates India’s position that historical cumulative emissions are the source of the climate crisis that the world faces today,” said India’s environment ministry. The ministry, in fact, emphasised that India’s cumulative and per capita current emissions are significantly low and far less than its fair share of the global carbon budget. It highlighted steps such as the installation of 450 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030 among the measures taken by the government to tackle climate change.

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