How Does India Fare on Global Climate Change Indices?

The term climate change is often bandied about to refer to changing weather patterns, but such usage of the term is shorn of the nuanced and technical meaning it is endowed with. A comprehensive definition of climate change incorporates a host of related technical aspects. On the other hand, India, like other developing nations, bears the brunt of changing weather patterns more than the developed economies. 

                                         

Our people have a right to economic and social development and to discard the ignominy of widespread poverty. For this we need rapid economic growth. But I also believe that ecologically sustainable development need not be in contradiction to achieving our growth objectives. In fact, we must have a broader perspective on development. It must include the quality of life, not merely the quantitative accretion of goods and services. Our people want higher standards of living, but they also want clean water to drink, fresh air to breathe and a green earth to walk on.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (Press Information Bureau 2008)

The above quote underscores the need to adopt sustainable development pathways to achieve economic prosperity, according to the widely accepted IPAT[1] model of climate change (Chertow 2001). Anthropogenic factors have a huge impact on the environment and result in climate change for every economy, be it a developed or a developing nation.

Climate Change and Global Warming

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) delineates climate change as a significant change in the indicators of climate lasting for an extended period of time. These changes cover temperature, precipitation, and wind patterns, among other effects that occur over several decades or longer (United States Environmental Protection Agency 2017).

On the other hand, global warming represents only one severe aspect of climate change, that is, the recent and ongoing rise in the global average temperature near the earth’s surface. This is mainly due to the increase in the concentration of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. Thus, global warming is responsible for changing climate patterns. Over the past century, human activity has released a large amount of carbon dioxide and other GHGs into the atmosphere. Most of the GHGs emit from burning fossil fuels to produce energy. The other causes include indiscriminate deforestation, industrialisation, and even due to some agricultural practices. The harmful GHGs cover the earth like a blanket and trap energy in the atmosphere, causing it to heat up. This phenomenon is called the greenhouse effect and is natural and necessary to support life on earth. However, over time, these GHGs can significantly change the earth’s climate and have a debilitating effect on life on earth and to the environment. As GHGs continue to remain in the atmosphere for longer periods of time, the problem of climate change becomes an intergenerational issue, with an underlining ethical angle, besides its socioeconomic and environmental concerns (Ratani 2018).  

As many as 97% of climate scientists concur that the rapid global warming over the past century is a direct result of the spike in human activities. Even leading scientific organisations have issued public statements that endorse the claim. Of them, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2019) affirms that the scientific evidence about the warming of the climate is unequivocal. The following are some of the worrying signs of climate change across the world:

Rise in sea levels and warming up of oceans: Global sea levels rose about 17 centimetres (6.7 inches) in the last century. In the last decade, however, the sea levels rose twice than what they had been in the last century (Nerem et al 2018).

Rise in global temperatures: Most of the warming of the planet occurred in the past 35 years, with 15 of the 16 warmest years on record having occurred since 2001. The year 2015 was the first time that the global average temperatures rose by one degree Celsius or more when compared to the average levels recorded during 1880–99 (NASA 2017c).

Shrinkage in ice sheets: Both the extent and thickness of the Arctic Sea ice have declined rapidly over the last several decades (NASA 2017b).

Glacial retreat: Glaciers are retreating around the world, including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska, and Africa (NASA 2017b).

Ocean acidification: This increase is the result of humans emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that would be absorbed into the oceans eventually. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the upper layer of oceans is increasing by about two billion tonnes per year (NASA 2017a).

Decreasing snow cover: Satellite images reveal that the amount of spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased over the past five decades and that the snow is melting more rapidly than usual (NASA 2017a).

As alluded to earlier, carbon emissions are a major concern today that is resulting in global warming, and eventually climate change. The reason for an increased amount of carbon emissions is to do with the combustion of fossil fuels, which has increased exponentially over the years to enable countries to chart out their development course in a purely economic sense. The below picture represents how carbon emissions have grown to unmanageable levels over the course of the earth’s history.

 

Figure 1: Carbon Emissions of the World

                                                                                    Source: NASA

The problem with climate change is further aggravated by the fact that those who are the least responsible for past emissions are likely to suffer the most serious impacts (at least in the beginning). All the sufferers are the inhabitants of poor and developing nations. This is partly due to the fact that the poorer nations are geographically located in climate-sensitive regions. On the other hand, they also lack the necessary resources available to the rich to offset the harmful effects of climate change (McGuigan et al 2002). Thus, climate change also assumes an ethical dimension as it is the poor and those who are not responsible for the sad state of affairs who are the ones who are at more risk. Like other developing countries, India also bears the brunt of climate change in a serious way.

India’s Vulnerability to Climate Change

Being one of the fastest-growing economies of the world, India is compelled to adopt sustainable pathways to development. However, this is difficult as it would generally mean a trade-off between economic development and environmental considerations. The impact of climate change in India is much more due to its large reliance on climate-sensitive sectors (Majra and Gur 2009) to realise its development goals. India is already witnessing the harmful effects of climate change on its economy.

Impact on agriculture and food production: Agriculture and food production in India are primarily affected by the amount of rainfall. Given that situation, the studies by the Indian Agricultural Research Institution (IARI) indicate that, for every one degree Celsius rise in temperature, there is a corresponding four to five million tonne reduction in wheat production. There is also a considerable decrease in dairy production and output from fisheries (Kumar et al 2012: 32).  

 Impact on water resources: Climate change has an impact on humidity, temperature, and precipitation, which result in the erosion of the quantity and the quality of available water resources.

 

Figure 2:   Vulnerability of Agriculture to Climate Change

                                                                                                   Source: Central Research Institute for Dry Land Agriculture 2013

Impact on health: An increase in vector-borne diseases, malnutrition, and undernutrition is a direct impact of climate change.  

Impact on forests: India’s forest cover accounts for 20.6% of the total geographical area of the country. In addition, the tree cover accounts for 2.8% (Ministry of Environment and Forests Government of India 2009a). India is one of the few developing countries in the world making a net addition to its forest and tree cover over the last two decades. But, climate change has the potential to adversely affect this positive development. It might even change the patterns of livelihood of those who depend on forest resources. Climate change can significantly affect the biodiversity of ecosystems in general.

Vulnerability to extreme weather conditions: Heavily populated areas are more likely to experience greater damage when cyclones, floods, and earthquakes occur. This also reduces the net sown area under cropping. These vulnerabilities further have negative implications on the efforts to realise the Sustainable Development Goals.

Sustainable Development Goals and India’s Tight Rope-walk

Sustainable development refers to a process that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Commission 1987). It underlines that future generations are entitled to the same rights as that of the present generation, and thus it becomes a statement on intergenerational equity. Such a definition encompasses a concern for social equity between generations and also equity within every generation.  

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)[2] are specific goals enshrined in the United Nations Organisation’s charter with an aim to positively transform the world by 2030. These 17 “Global Goals” envision to meet 169 targets (MDG Monitor). Considering these 17 SDGs and different pathways of countries to achieve them, one can clearly establish a link between climate change, effects of anthropogenic activities, and the carbon emissions across the world.

Figure 3: Sustainable Development Goals

                                                                                                    Source: United Nations

All of the above goals generate specific policy objectives for different countries. In India, for example, objectives like energy security, food security, poverty alleviation, and attainment of a higher human development index pose a greater burden on non-renewable resources such as coal, fuels, and so on, and lead to greater carbon emissions. However, seen from a global perspective, India’s per capita carbon emissions are marginal at 4% of the global emissions (Singh 2019). In absolute terms too, the emission and energy intensity of India are favourably low as compared to other countries. Over the years, energy growth has been significantly lower (less than 4% per annum) than the economic growth (over 9% per annum) (Growth 2011). Considering the huge population and its pressure on available non-renewable resources, this reduced energy intensity cannot be seen as a safeguard from climate change. This reduced energy intensity[3] at the relatively low level of India’s per capita GDP, has been made possible by a range of factors, including India’s historically sustainable patterns of consumption, enhanced competitiveness, proactive policies to promote energy efficiency, and, more recently, the use of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to accelerate the adoption of clean energy technologies (Purohit 2009). Here, it is interesting to look at the two indices on climate change, which are computed globally. These are the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) and Climate Risk Index (CRI). The former index indicates the efforts made by a country to effectively tackle climate change, while the latter refers to the exposure of a given country to the risks of climate change. India, for its part, is relatively in a better-off position in both these indices, thanks to the proactive initiatives that have been taken on the adaptation[4] and mitigation[5] fronts.

Climate Change Performance Index and India

Among the 58 countries ranked on the 2017 Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), India stands at the 20th position (Burck et al 2017). This clearly indicates that India’s contribution to mitigate climate change is better than other developed countries such as the United States (US) and China, which fare very poorly on the index. The first three ranks are left vacant as no country is taking enough measures at the prescribed levels to reverse climate change. Canada (55), Australia (57), and Japan (60) are in the bottom group (rated "very poor") of the index. The performance of the world’s two largest emitters the US (43) and China (48) is rated "poor" in the CCPI.  

 

Figure 4: Climate Change Performance Index

                                                                                                    Source: Bruck et al 2017

The planetary atmospheric space is a common resource of humanity, and every citizen of the world has an equal entitlement to that space. The principle of equity, therefore, implies that, over a period of time, there should be a convergence in per capita emissions. Any global climate change regime that results in merely freezing of the huge divergence in per capita emissions, cannot be accepted on the grounds of equity. Besides, both production and consumption patterns should be considered along with the willingness to address lifestyle issues to tackle the challenge of climate change.  

Adaptation strategies have been employed by the countries to counteract climate change, despite the fact that there is scope for mitigation scenarios. India is already subject to high degrees of climate variability that have been resulting in droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events, and it has been compelled to spend over 2% of its GDP on adaptation (Ratani 2018). This figure is likely to go up significantly in the coming years.

At the heart of SDGs, there are targets to end hunger, achieve food security, and improve nutrition, among others. On the other hand, there is a commitment from developed nations globally to reduce GHG emissions, to achieve maximum possible distribution of climate-friendly technologies at affordable prices, and to put in place a collaborative research and development mechanism globally to bring about cost-effective technological innovations that can lead to carbon-free economies (United Nations 2019).

Climate Risk Index and India

The CRI indicates a level of exposure and vulnerability to extreme weather conditions that countries should treat as warnings for the future. Of the 10 most-affected countries during 1996 and 2015, nine were developing countries in the low-income or lower-middle-income countries’ groups, while only one was classified as an upper-middle-income country. The countries ranked at the top on the CRI are the ones most affected, and should see the CRI as a warning sign that they are at risk (Kreft, Eckstein and Melchior 2016).

India faced several types of extreme weather conditions in 2015. After the floods in February and March due to unseasonal rainfall, it suffered one of the deadliest heatwaves in the world's history (Guha-Sapir et al 2015) that killed more than 2,300 people in May. This was further followed by a much weaker monsoon than normal (Guleria and Gupta 2018: 124).   

Table 1: Climate Risk Index 1996-2015 

Country CRI Rank CRI Score
Honduras 1 11.33
Myanmar 2 14.17
Haiti 3 18.17
Nicaragua 4 19.17
Philippines 5 21.33
Bangladesh 6 25.00
Pakistan 7 30.50
Vietnam 8 31.33
Guatemala 9 33.83
Thailand 10 34.83
India 14 37.50
China 34  52.00
                                                                                                                                                      Source: Sonke et al 2016

 

Climate change is not taking place due to the current levels of GHG emissions, but as a result of the cumulative impact of accumulated GHGs in the planetary atmosphere. The accumulated stock of GHGs in the atmosphere is mainly the result of carbon-based industrial activity in the developed countries over the past two centuries and more. It is for this reason that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change called for deep and significant cuts in the emissions of the industrialised countries (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change 2009b).  

Climate change negotiations are taking place against the backdrop of an increasingly globalised, interconnected, and interdependent world economy. Development must, therefore, remain at the centre of the global discourse. Action on climate change must enhance, and not diminish the prospects for development.

Countering Climate Change: India’s Story

In order to achieve a sustainable path that simultaneously advances economic and environmental objectives, the Indian government has announced its National Action Plan on Climate Change. India’s domestic plan for sustainable development consists of eight national missions are as follows: solar energy, enhanced energy efficiency, sustainable habitats, conserving water, sustaining the Himalayan ecosystem, a Green India, sustainable agriculture, and strategic knowledge platform for climate change (Pandve 2009).     

With the specific projects in line with each of the above missions, India has also benefitted from the transfer of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to employ more mitigation measures to tackle climate change. As a pure business model, the CDM enables developing nations to work out mitigation strategies to counteract climate change in a cost-effective manner. According to Burniaux et al (2009), crediting mechanisms like the CDM could play three important roles in climate change mitigation: improve the cost-effectiveness of GHG mitigation policies in developed countries, help in reduction of “carbon leakage” of emissions from developed to developing countries, and boost transfer of clean and less polluting technologies to developing countries.  

The Indian economy has benefitted immensely by investing in CDM projects. The total number of CDM projects registered in India was 1,452, compared to 8,044 projects globally by the end of 2015. On the other hand, CDM projects in India facilitated an estimated investment of Rs 1.6 trillion in India by the end of 2014. Therefore, investment in CDM projects has advantages to the environment and to the economy of India.   

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