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The climate puzzle baked in India’s heatwave

CHANDIGARH, India – Temperatures started to rise shortly after arriving in the eastern megacity of Kolkata in February. They do so whenever India’s short winter turns into early spring. But then they kept climbing.

After the hottest March in 122 years on record, scorching temperatures continued into April, with the nationwide high averaging more than 35 degrees Fahrenheit. During my recent stay in New Delhi, the mercury topped 110 degrees for two consecutive days, overwhelming the air conditioning in my rental apartment. The maximum temperature in the capital, which is home to more than 30 million people throughout the metro area, averaged more than 104 degrees last month. Even higher temperatures have been reported elsewhere: 111 in other regions of India and to the west, in parts of Pakistan, over 120.

I was lucky to have air conditioning at all. Most of the 1.4 billion Indians would be lucky to have a fan and the necessary electricity. A ride in a tricycle Tuktuk feels like having a blow dryer pointed straight at your face. The inside of a slum dweller’s windowless room, often home to an entire family, can become a deadly hotbox. Health authorities have reported hundreds of deaths from heatstroke across the country, but the true number is likely to be far higher.

The only saving grace I am writing now from the northern state of Punjab is that the unseasonably spring heat has come before the monsoon rains. Although this has led to drought conditions in some places, it has also kept humidity levels low enough for India to largely avoid a national spike in heatstroke deaths. For the country’s health and climate experts trying to plot global warming, the ‘wet bulb’ temperature is the danger they fear most. This deadly combination of heat and humidity, which prevents the human body from cooling itself through sweating, poses a major threat to South Asia’s rainy season, experts say. Although climate scientists are still puzzling over the exact details of global warming’s role in India’s current heatwave, the connection is clear enough: Bouts of blistering heat like this are becoming a regular feature of South Asian weather, rather than just once a year. a decade-or-more crisis.

The heatwave was severe enough to make international headlines, but it’s far from the only climate change impact I’ve experienced in the first half of my six-month trip across the country researching and reporting on climate change and energy Transition that India is undertaking to mitigate it. India is at the sharp end of this predicament. A recent Standard & Poor’s report concluded that the economies of South Asia are the most vulnerable countries in the world – the consultants estimate they are 10 times more vulnerable to the threats of global warming than the least vulnerable over the coming decades countries, mainly in Europe.

Visiting the expansive Sundarbans mangrove swamp, part of the world’s largest tidal estuary where several major rivers flow into the Bay of Bengal, I saw firsthand how rising sea levels and more frequent and intense cyclones are contributing to this destroying what is not only a complex and sensitive ecosystem, but also a significant carbon sink. An island in the estuary, Ghoramara, which was hit by four major cyclones from 2019 to 2021, has lost about half its landmass and more than half its population in recent decades. A tropical storm last year submerged the entire island under several feet of turbulent water. Thousands of residents had to seek refuge in a school shelter. Although they fled just inches above the floodwaters, they escaped alive, losing virtually everything else, including personal belongings and the school’s textbooks.

Almost a year after the disaster, I met Ajiman Bibi, a 60-year-old mother of five who was born on the island. As we talked, she spread grain to dry on a blanket in front of her makeshift shelter. “If the government didn’t give us that, we would have nothing,” she told me.

As I continued my journey, mostly by train, to the tea-producing slopes of Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalayas, I saw the damage from last October’s torrential rains – a phenomenon associated with a warming climate. The fall ‘rain bomb’, which dropped a month’s rainfall in a single day, caused landslides that cut a path into the mountainside that is still visible from across the valley. Tea producers told me how erratic rainfall and higher temperatures, especially at night, have severely challenged delicate crops in recent years and threatened the entire industry.

Here in Punjab, the breadbasket of India, wheat farmers who were looking forward to a bumper harvest in a year when prices had been pushed up ahead of lower yields from Ukraine have suffered crop losses amid the scorching heat. This is not only disappointing for them, but how The Atlantic’s Weekly Planet Newsletter notes this week, of deep concern for countries facing global food shortages in the coming months. The state’s energy secretary said demand for electricity has risen 40 percent year over year as people turned on fans and air conditioners at home and post-COVID industrial production picked up again. The railroads canceled dozens of passenger trains to expedite coal shipments to power plants to avoid blackouts.

Wherever I go, I expect to find more signs of climate change. In the northern Himalayas, rapidly rising winter temperatures have disrupted snowfall patterns and melted glaciers. In the south, cities like Chennai experience both drought and flooding, depending on the season.

Faced with these growing challenges, Indians are struggling to adapt. Cities have instituted “heat action plans,” halted some outdoor work, and put in place special water distribution policies. In Darjeeling, tea farmers have turned to organic farming techniques, in part to make their lands more resilient to fluctuating weather patterns.

“Everyone is now trying to work to mitigate climate challenges,” Kaushik Das, a veteran manager at Ambootia Group, told me as we drove through the Chongtong estate he oversees.

And in the Sundarbans I met researchers studying how to restore the degraded habitats of the mangroves – as a crucial natural barrier against rising sea levels and cyclone-associated tidal waves. However, even if such strategies have further leeway, there are limits to adaptation. Climate change solutions are also needed.

India has publicly committed to generating half of its energy from renewable resources by 2030 and aims to install 500 gigawatts of renewable capacity by then. That’s a massive undertaking, based on a capacity of around 150 gigawatts today. India has been adding renewable energy faster than any other major country in the world, including an 11-fold increase in solar power generation capacity over the past five years, but it is playing a seemingly never-ending game of catch-up.

According to the International Energy Agency, India, as a developing country where large parts of its population still live in poverty, will experience faster growth in energy consumption than any other country between now and 2040. To do that while curbing coal, the country needs to grow renewable energy much faster to meet its promise of “net-zero” emissions by 2070. This requires heavy foreign investment, which is becoming increasingly active in India, but reaching net zero is a daunting task.

Adding to the heatwave, India’s energy industry has been rocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. India imports more than 80 percent of its oil, so the cost of meeting demand results in a yawning current account deficit. The prices for gas supplies from abroad – an important factor in the production of fertilizers – have also skyrocketed. That, too, is a strain on the federal budget as the government increases subsidies to keep prices stable for struggling farmers.

All of this casts a shadow over the urgent global climate talks. This fall, national delegates will gather in Egypt for the 27th United Nations meeting on climate change, known as the Conference of the Parties. Last year’s COP26, held in Glasgow, Scotland, ended on a bad note when India, cheered on by China, forced a watering down of the conference’s ambitions to reduce the use of coal (China and India are the two biggest users of the world). The move comes after India and other developing countries felt acute frustration at the abject failure of the world’s wealthier developed nations to deliver on pledges to allocate $100 billion annually to help them tackle climate change.

These tensions would likely resurface as early as COP27. This spring’s heatwave in India is already adding to the pressure. As Indian officials are quick to note, the country may be the world’s third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, but it’s a laggard, and its share of the warming gases accumulated in the atmosphere is just 3.4 percent, compared to the US’s 20 percent, and fast growing China at 11.4 percent. Although developing countries have had little to do with global warming, it is here that the toll will be worst.

A thunderstorm shower this week brought a welcome respite from the weather here in Punjab, at least for now. But without a new commitment from the developed world to shoulder more of the costs of climate change, India’s spring heatwave will still be felt in the fall.

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/05/india-heat-wave-climate-change/629786/?utm_source=feed The climate puzzle baked in India’s heatwave

Jessica MacLeish

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