2019 could be the year when climate change became a here-and-now problem that no responsible country can ignore. Unfortunately, this is not the same as saying that 2020 is the year in which every country will finally face this challenge. In this gap between growing globalization and a sustained national footprint, India has to find its response to climate change.
In 2019, a drum beat of scientific reports told an increasingly bad story of climate impacts. A report for the climate change summit by the UN Secretary General states that 2015-2019, at around 1.1 ° C above the historical level, is the warmest of all five-year periods to date. This seemingly modest increase is enough to destabilize natural systems. For example, sea levels rise both due to thermal expansion and because the ice sheets are melting. The amount of Arctic sea ice in summer decreased by 12 percent a year, and the two lowest levels of Antarctic summer ice were recorded in 2017 and 2018.
What do these signs of a relentless and accelerating warming trend mean for people around the world? Unfortunately, it signals the relentless undermining of natural conditions for stable human systems and ecosystems. For example, the acidity of our oceans has increased by 26 percent since industrialization began as the oceans absorb more CO2, which affects ocean life and fisheries. Due to the rising sea level, many coastal areas are threatened by storm surges. A much-cited report showed that much of South Mumbai will be flooded by 2050. Forest fires, fueled by heat waves and unusually dry conditions, swept California, the Amazon, Australia and even the Arctic in 2019. As I write this, I hear from a friend in Australia that the smoke from fires in Sydney affects Melbourne, 900 km away. 2018 saw the highest number of tropical cyclones of the year in the 21st century. The food and agriculture organization reports a steady increase in the number of malnourished people worldwide from 2015 to 2018, which is partly due to climate variability and extreme weather. It should not be that industrialization and development should make us all safer, but people around the world face increasing insecurity when the climate rebels. In some parts of the world, particularly in Europe, young people are rising in an extinction rebellion to express their concern about this planetary emergency.
The global political response has been overwhelming. Global CO2 emissions continue to rise by 2 percent a year. At both the end-of-the-year climate change negotiations and the UN Secretary-General's summit, countries refused to improve their commitments to limit emissions (each country must make a voluntary commitment under the Paris Agreement). The United Nations' annual emissions gap report shows that the gap between what is needed and what is being done is widening alarmingly, not narrowing. Major countries, particularly the United States, Brazil, and Australia, are led by leading politicians who publicly oppose promoting global action against climate change.
In the first two decades of the climate problem, India treated this as someone else's problem. It hadn't contributed much to global emissions, certainly compared to our large population and low emissions in the past. However, we were concerned that our development should not be hampered by efforts to limit global emissions. This shift in the burden of rich countries to poor countries remains a matter of concern. But we have also become much more aware that India is a country at high risk for climate impacts. As the newspapers in a newly published volume India in a Warming World show, India can expect falling crop yields, higher temperatures, coastal damage, urban disruptions and more violent weather events. Climate change is likely to be a headwind for India's progress.
Despite many other concerns, India can no longer afford to ignore climate change when considering its energy, development, and foreign policy. The decade of the 2020s will lay the foundation for how India copes with the climate emergency.
First, the world of energy is ready to be completely changed by the climate change agenda. If the countries adapt to climate change, the development of the Indian economy towards low CO2 emissions should be a competitive advantage. Will it cost more? Here's the good news that after decades of slow shifts in renewable electricity in many parts of the world, including India, it is cheaper than coal. While problems with intermittent renewable energy do not always shine and the sun does not always blow, there are ways to work around this, including through cheaper electricity storage technologies. Since India starts at a low level of development, it has not committed itself to a high-carbon path. This could be beneficial in the development of our cities. India has the ability to explore cities built around public transportation, carpooling, efficient building design, sensible urban planning, and resilience to climate change. This also helps limit air pollution. The transition to a low carbon future will not be easy. Our broken power distribution system can be thoroughly disrupted by small renewable energies. For example, industrial users who stabilize disruptions financially can leave the system at a cost to the poorest. India must plan for such challenges to ensure that a low carbon future is both environmentally and socially beneficial.
Second, it is becoming increasingly clear that, regardless of global efforts, India will, in its own interest, carry significant impacts of climate change for which it must prepare. This means rethinking our coastal development so that the infrastructure is resistant to climate shocks and coastal cities are protected. It means rethinking our agricultural system to ensure that it is resistant to droughts, unpredictable rainfall and pests. To achieve this, we may need to rethink our crop selection, purchase crop insurance, and integrate climate change planning into pioneering programs such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. These are only illustrative; In areas as diverse as urban planning, agriculture, fisheries and water and forest management, climate change must be included in development aspects.
After all, climate change is now a diplomatic issue and must be part of our strategic calculation. So far, India has successfully positioned itself as a relative market leader, albeit under a class of global climate retarders. We did this against the backdrop of an aggressive solar energy policy and some smart initiatives like the International Solar Alliance. But all of these efforts are focused on changing India's diplomatic perception. They are not meant to improve the urgency or effectiveness of the global response. The focus is on ensuring continuous differentiation “in the language used in the climate negotiations between the north and the south. While it is important, it is time for India in the coming decade to go beyond this approach and rise as a leader in climate-damaging countries, demanding ever more urgent action from everyone. The large countries of the rapidly industrializing world, including China, Brazil, South Africa and India, are now well represented worldwide, with China being undoubtedly the leader. With the United States now lagging behind, this weight must be transferred to organizing more effective and coordinated global action against climate change.
India will face many challenges in the coming decade. Unfortunately, despite all the other urgent problems, we no longer have the luxury to put climate change aside to deal with it later. There is increasingly no development path for India that is innocent of climate change. However, internalizing climate change is a major challenge. To do this, our departments and ministries must work together. It requires strategic thinking and planning for the future. And it will take work to get other countries to act. India needs to prepare for the headwind of the climate.
Navroz K. Dubash is a professor at the Center for Policy Research and editor of the recently published India in a Warming World.