Climate change and associated risks – how to avert weather calamities in India

By Dr. Murari Lal, Published on: 25th September 2023

The Global Scenario of Climate Risks

The Earth’s climate energy balance is disturbed due to anthropogenic release of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Over the past few decades, excess heat has accumulated within the Earth’s systems, warming the oceans, land, cryosphere, and atmosphere. A new study by the World Meteorological Organisation suggests that the Earth’s Energy Imbalance continues to grow and has risen by nearly 50% over the past 14 years compared to the amount accumulated over the last half of a decade (Figure 1). As a consequence, climate change remains one of the greatest threats facing humanity today.

In this two-part blog series, we will discuss the global climate change scenario and India and its impact on fossil fuels, mitigating these climate risks with a collective Global Climate Action Plan and the future ahead.

Climate change is having a significant impact on the frequency and severity of extreme weather events worldwide. Several studies have documented increasing surface, atmospheric, and oceanic temperatures on climate time scales and bringing significant changes to glaciers, snow cover, sea ice, sea levels, and ocean acidity. As a result, many extreme weather events are now more intense than they have been in the past.

Figure 1: Total heat gain by the earth-atmosphere system in the past one and a half decades relative to the past fifty years (Source: WMO, 2023)

Increasing GHG concentrations have led to a global mean surface temperature rise by ~1.2?C above the 1850-1900 average, accelerating warming since the 1980s (Figure 2). This warming has already caused major climate disasters during the recent two decades and has become more widespread with higher intensities as experienced since the year 2022. If the current GHG emission rates are sustained, the global average temperature will rise by nearly 5°C, possibly more, by the end of the twenty-first century.

Figure 2: Observed global mean surface temperature (GMST) change relative to the 1850-1900 period

It is also certain that human activities are primarily responsible for these changes in the Earth’s climate. As a matter of fact, oil, natural gas, and coal have been the foundations of economic development and personal lifestyles since the Industrial Revolution began in the 19th century. Over the last century and a half, the livelihoods of many have been directly and indirectly shaped by these forms of energy and continue even today. Consequently, despite short-term reductions in emissions due to COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, the global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other Greenhouse gases (GHGs) have continued to increase. Carbon dioxide concentrations measured at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, exceeded 420 parts per million (ppm) in 2022, compared with 320 ppm in the early 1960s (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Monthly mean carbon dioxide measured at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, in recent years (black lines symbols represent the corrected values for the average seasonal cycle and vertical bar of the uncertainty range, respectively).

Globally, July 2023 was the Earth’s warmest month on record and also set a new record for the highest monthly sea surface temperature anomaly, indicating how much warmer or cooler temperatures are from the long-term average. The sea ice extent in July 2023 was about 470,000 square miles less than the previous record low from July 2019. Antarctic sea ice coverage ranked lowest for a third consecutive month, running about 1 million square miles below the 1991–2020 average. Likewise, The Arctic sea ice extent for July 2023 ranked as the 12th smallest in the satellite record, about 220,000 square miles below the 1991–2020 average. The frequency and intensity of many extremes, such as prolonged severe heatwaves, massive forest fires, and catastrophic floods due to very heavy precipitation resulting in land/mudslides, have increased in vast parts of Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America across the world in recent years of the 21st century. There is high confidence that human-induced climate change, from greenhouse emissions, is the primary driver. Climate science has now exposed a crisis that the world will likely face in the coming months, years, and decades. It is a ‘climate emergency’ and requires climate restoration at the highest priority to avert the impending risks. Explicit subsidies on fossil fuels (undercharging for supply costs) have more than doubled since 2020. Differences between efficient and retail fuel prices remain large and pervasive; almost 80% of global coal consumption was priced below half of its efficient level in 2022. We should expect massive increases in the intensity, frequency, and duration of extreme weather events exacerbating compounding heat, floods, and drought situations to happen more often in coming years and decades unless we are ready to get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible and take proactive measures at all spatial scales from local to global, including emission reductions to meet agreed upon targets to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and also adaptation strategies to cope with in critical geographical regions to build resilience.

What happens to Fossil Fuels Now and in the Future?

The recent COP 27 held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, has been deemed a failure for not agreeing on a target for phasing out the primary driver for the climate crisis, despite some countries pushing for it during the earlier Glasgow meeting. The absence of an agreement to accelerate “efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” has been seen as an inadequate response to climate issues. Governments must implement a phase-out of fossil fuel production and use and focus on an equitable transition to avoid the worst climate crisis.

India submitted its Long-Term Low Emission Development Strategy (LT LEDS), aiming to phase down all fossil fuels, expand green hydrogen production, triple nuclear capacity by 2032, and target 20% ethanol blending in petrol by 2025.

For climate change negotiators, climate change mitigation primarily consists of market mechanisms that do not produce real emission reductions but threaten Indigenous sovereignty and territory. They have called for climate change mitigation that centers people in the energy transition and keeps fossil fuels on the ground. Fossil fuel financing is still dominated by a handful of banks from the United States, Canada, and Japan. Despite their net-zero language, many of these banks and other financial investors do not have strong policies to keep global warming below 1.5°C. In 2022, fossil fuel companies made a record profit of $4 trillion, while as many as 60 banks funneled $150 billion into the top 100 companies expanding fossil fuels. Chinese banks provided 97% of the total financing to the world’s top 30 companies in coal power. If these banks take the necessary steps to enable a shift to a clean and fair energy economy, the first step should be to end the financing of new oil, gas, and coal supply or infrastructure. As stated by the UN Secretary-General, citing the IPCC AR6 Report in 2022, Fossil fuels are a dead end – for our planet, for humanity, and economies.”Given that “developing any new oil and gas fields is incompatible with limiting warming to 1.5°C,” the negotiations for COP 28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) this year must prioritize this issue.

The United Nations has now issued a new warning about global climate change – at current rates, our rapidly warming planet is on track for more severe disasters. Limiting a temperature rise to 1.5oC requires drastic action by the major greenhouse gas polluters. Unfortunately, multilateral approaches have achieved only modest emission reductions. The UN has convened 27 high-level climate change conferences that have “called on” and “urged” nations to do more. The window is fast closing to make an impact as the real-time effects of climate change accelerate.

Risks due to Climate Change in India

Climate change is, on average, increasing the temperature rise in India, which is rising tremendously. India’s average surface air temperature has risen by around 1.2°C from 1901–2022. This temperature rise is primarily caused by warming from greenhouse gases, with some offset from anthropogenic aerosols and changes in land use and land change(LULC). Pre-monsoon temperatures have displayed the highest warming trend, followed by post-monsoon and monsoon seasons. India’s average temperature is projected to rise by approximately 4.4°C relative to the 1976-2005 average under high-end emissions scenario by the end of this century. The frequency of warm days and nights is projected to increase by 55% and 70% by the end of this century, relative to the reference period 1976-2005. Also, the pre-monsoon season heatwave frequency, duration, intensity, and area coverage over India are projected to increase with time.

India’s seasonal monsoon rains from June to September contribute to over 75% of annual rainfall and are crucial for agriculture and the economy. However, the precipitation of rains decreased by 6% between 1951 and 2020, with significant declines over the Indo-Gangetic Plains and the Western Ghats. Multiple datasets and climate models suggest that the radiative effects of anthropogenic aerosol forcing over the Northern Hemisphere have offset mainly the anticipated precipitation increase from greenhouse gas warming, causing the observed reduction. However, more intense wet spells have been reported during the summer monsoon. In recent decades, there has been a significant rise in the frequency of localized heavy precipitation events in Central India and hill regions of North India. Between 1951 and 2020, the frequency of extreme daily precipitation with rainfall intensities exceeding 150 mm per day has increased by about 80% in Central India.

Interestingly, the decrease in seasonal summer monsoon rainfall during the last few decades has also led to an increased propensity for droughts in India. There has been a shift in the recent period toward more frequent dry spells (28% higher during 1981–2020 relative to 1951–1980). Both the frequency and spatial extent of droughts have increased significantly during 1951–2020. The area affected by drought has also increased by 1.2% per decade over the same period. Climate change is not just affecting the southwest monsoon but is also driving changes in the northeast monsoon, and the variability has increased in the period 1971–2020.

Since the middle of the twentieth century (1951-2020), there has been a significant decrease in the annual frequency of monsoon depressions and tropical cyclones over the North Indian Ocean basin. However, during the post-monsoon season in the last two decades (2001-2020), the frequency of very severe cyclonic storms (VSCSs) has increased by 1 event per decade. Currently, there is no clear evidence of the impact of anthropogenic warming on these trends, although climate models predict that the intensity of tropical cyclones in the Arabian Sea will increase relative to the Bay of Bengal in the coming decades.

The tropical Indian Ocean has the highest temperature among all the oceans in the world. It is a part of the Indo-Pacific warm pool, where the sea surface temperature is higher than 28°C(SST > 28°C). This warm pool is crucial in sustaining deep-atmospheric convection and maintaining the tropical atmospheric circulation, an essential component of the global climate system. Over the past few decades (1971-2020), the ocean heat content in the upper 700 meters of the tropical Indian Ocean has exhibited an increasing trend. The last two decades (2001-2020) have experienced a notably abrupt rise.

Observations indicate that the Indian Ocean has been warming faster than any other basin in response to anthropogenic climate change, resulting in oxygen-depleted surface waters, which puts the intense marine productivity of the northern Indian Ocean under threat. This incredible trend is significant as forecasts for April 2023 predict El Niño is on its way in the next two to three months, with impacts like unprecedented extreme heat, deficient rainfall in selected areas, dangerous tropical cyclones, and bleaching of fragile coral reefs in Indian Seas are anticipated later this year. The rising sea levels along Indian coastlines shall result in multiple adverse effects like coastal erosion, inundations, storm floods, tidal water encroachment into estuaries and river systems, and contamination of freshwater reserves.

India is the most significant contributor to the growth in emissions in 2022 as it continued to increase its use of coal – the most polluting of fossil fuels (perhaps a short-term measure to cope with the ongoing energy crisis). However, India stands committed to reducing the emissions caused by activities for the nation’s economic growth by 45% by 2030 from 2005, according to the national targets set by India’s Prime Minister at COP 27 in Egypt.

It is crucial to acknowledge that our current consumption of natural resources is unsustainable. If we continue down this path, we risk a biodiversity collapse. To prevent this, we need to make a paradigm shift towards a green economy and adopt a holistic approach.

Stay tuned; in the next part of the series, we will discuss the mitigation plan for the climate risks and the future ahead.

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