The climate change crisis is deepening inequalities, making the vulnerable more so, not only across countries but also within countries. This should be blindingly obvious to anyone who has been following discussions around climate change. But the fact that it needs to be spelt out explicitly, yet again, in mega meets such as COP 27 at Sharm el-Sheikh tells you a lot about the enormity of the challenges ahead.
As climate justice expert Yamide Dagnet pointed out in a recent interview to Inter-Press Service, a global news agency: “Unfortunately, inequalities in the world (and) within each country will be exacerbated because of climate change. The impact of climate change will affect the most vulnerable populations from class and gender, with inter-generational impact and from a race point of view. All aspects of inequality will be amplified.”
We all know that deadly heatwaves, floods, storms, droughts, wildfires and so on, or what scientists call “extreme weather events” have become more erratic and more frequent globally. Their impact, however, has not been uniform. The worst-affected are the poor and those living on the margins.
What does this mean for India, which has a largely young population, a deeply iniquitous socio-economic fabric, and which is the seventh most vulnerable country with respect to climate extremes?
Take extreme heat, as an illustration. Globally, heatwaves kill nearly half a million people a year. The number by itself, however, tells you only a part of the story.
A new report by Unicef, the UN’s children’s agency, points out the danger that extreme heat poses to children. Children, the report points out, are affected by heat in two broad ways -- risks to health and well-being, and social and educational risks. Child exposure to extreme high temperatures was highest in Africa and Asia in 2020 and will also be highest in these two regions by 2050. It says that by 2050, millions more children across every region in the world will have to face more extreme high temperatures and more frequent, longer lasting, and more severe heatwaves. it notes.
Currently, 23 countries fall into the highest category for child exposure to extreme high temperatures. This, says Unicef, will rise to 33 countries by 2050 under the low emissions scenario and 36 countries under the very high emissions scenario. India is among the countries which are expected to remain in the highest category in both scenarios. The others are Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, Sudan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Unsurprisingly, “the most disadvantaged are the most at risk”, as the report points out.
“Children from the poorest communities from the poorest countries face the greatest risks from heatwaves and yet receive the least support. They often lack access to coping mechanisms that could offer protection such as air conditioning, shelter, water for hydration and healthcare for treatment.”
Clearly, in India’s cities and villages, children who come from better-off families that can afford air-conditioners or air coolers are better-insulated from heatwaves than those whose parents eke out a living.
At Sharm el-Sheikh, a fact sheet released by Natural Resources Defence Council (India) pointed out that during the summer of 2022, India experienced weeks of searing heat that “were made at least 30 times more likely because of planet-warming greenhouse gas pollution from burning fossil fuels”.
Unpacked, this points to the dangers of more premature deaths and a dip in productivity.
According to a 2019 study by the International Labour Organisation, heat stress is projected to reduce total working hours worldwide by 2.2 per cent and global GDP by $2,400 billion in 2030. In absolute terms, India is expected to lose the equivalent of 34 million full-time jobs in 2030 as a result of heat stress.
Keep in mind that most Indians work in the informal sector, without social safety nets. The impact in India is likely to be felt mostly in the agricultural sector, also the construction sector, where heat stress affects both male and female workers.
What is being done? How seriously are we taking the looming challenges triggered by climate change?
We have begun thinking about these issues; work has begun. But a lot more needs to be done, given that millions in this country are severely exposed to heat and work in precarious conditions. In the Indian context, affordability must be key. And context matters.
Some experts are advocating a “heat vulnerability index” which factors in landscape, demography, and socio-economic factors.
India’s demand for air conditioning is expected to surge hugely to help counter worsening heat, but clearly everyone in this country will not be able to afford air-conditioners, nor live and work only in air-conditioned surroundings. If the rise in demand for cooling energy is met by electricity supplied mostly by burning fossil fuels, it can aggravate the climate change crisis.
Ahmedabad, which developed the country’s first Heat Action Plan (HAP) in 2013, offers insights into what can be done. A key component of the HAP is a Cool Roof programme using light-coloured roofing material which can reflect the sun’s rays.
Many Indian cities have followed the Ahmedabad example but the effectiveness of HAPs varies. Given the differential impacts of heatwaves and other climate change-fuelled extreme weather events, there can’t be one uniform solution. Significantly, we do not yet have easily accessible hard data on how heatwaves are impacting different segments of the population.
As the NRDC fact sheet points out: “With the current, limited implementation of cool roofs across India, understanding their local impacts is key to helping expand their role in cooling cities across the country.”
It notes that a new peer-reviewed research study led by a team of experts at the Gujarat Energy Research and Management Institute, Indian Institute of Public Health-Gandhinagar and Natural Resources Defence Council, published in the scientific journal Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, provides, for the first time, city-level estimates of the cooling energy demand reductions for the city of Ahmedabad, achievable through cool roof interventions in the context of climate change-driven warming by the year 2030. It goes on to say that though city-level cooling energy demand is set to grow dramatically, “expanding cool roofs from today’s five per cent of available residential roof area to 20 per cent by the year 2030 ((covering just one in five residential buildings) would achieve cooling energy savings that exceed the additional cooling energy demand linked to climate warming”.
And this is just one phenomenon -- searing heat. An analysis by the Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water suggests that three out of four districts in India are extreme event hotspots.
There is just no time to lose....