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India's lessons from the latest IPCC climate report

India is staring at a bleak climate future unless it acts now. Lounge speaks to three Indian IPCC authors to find out what needs to be done 

Strong waves lash the Gateway of India due to Cyclone Tauktae in 2021.
Strong waves lash the Gateway of India due to Cyclone Tauktae in 2021. (AFP)

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“I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this. Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.” UN Secretary General António Guterres didn’t mince his words during the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability on 28 February. The latest in a regular roundup of the state of climate science from IPCC’s scientists paints a bleak picture of the extent to which climate change impacts due to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are already affecting the natural world and human well-being. It also warns that the window of opportunity for keeping the global rise in temperatures within non-catastrophic limits is closing fast.

Among other things, the report reiterates the fact that a global temperature rise of 1.5 degree Celsius over pre-industrial levels constitutes a “critical level” which must not be crossed (average global temperatures are currently about 1.1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels). It also states unequivocally that climate change is affecting the entire planet, with nearly 3.6 billion people around the world extremely vulnerable to climate impacts.

Also Read: How climate change is increasing India's cyclone risk

The voluminous report, over 3,600 pages long, is a global assessment of the latest scientific findings, and is a part of the IPCC’s current round of reports. This is the sixth such exercise in building scientific evidence, and the current report is the second of four associated studies. The first of these came out in August last year—it looked at the physical basis of climate science and the extent to which human action is making the world hotter—and there will be one further focused report in April that will look into ways in which GHG emissions can be cut. Finally, a synthesis of all three reports will be published in October, ahead of the COP27 climate conference in Egypt.

The current report clearly states that human vulnerabilities to climate change dovetails with threats faced by ecosystems. It also states that the extent to which communities are suffering is linked to larger inequities of socio-economic development, unsustainable land and ocean use, marginalisation, governance and historical oppression like colonialism. It states that if the 1.5 degree Celsius barrier is breached in the near future, there will be unavoidable increases in hazards and risks to humans and ecosystems. However, it is also very clear that if the world is successful in reducing GHG emissions drastically in the near future, many of these risks can be avoided. The report also says that climate change has already caused some irreversible impacts on natural and human systems.

Also Read: How India is suffering every year due to deadly humid heat

It doesn’t just assess the impacts of climate change, but also the state of climate adaptation policies. The silver lining is that there are many instances of governments already acting on policies that are helping communities adapt to the new climate reality. The report takes a nuanced position, though, pointing out how most adaptation policies currently focus solely on immediate risk reduction, while ignore longer-term risk planning. It also lays out the limits of adaptation: ‘hard limits’ such as certain temperature thresholds that humans can’t survive or adapt to; and ‘soft limits’ where the success of adaptation policies depends on the socio-economic status of a given community.

Although the report is global in scope, it offers quite a few learnings for India. Scientists are clear that all countries, including India, need to start planning adaptation policies that focus beyond immediate risks. “There’s adaptation intent in India. But India is till focused on single risks, these adaptations are still reactive in nature. We don’t have really long term planning. For climate change, what we do today is going to lock us into these pathways well into the future. And then there are some serious gaps on certain types of risks.” says Chandni Singh, Senior Research Consultant at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, and a lead author on the IPCC report. Singh says by way of an example that there are adaptation gaps when it comes to understanding how the spread of vector borne diseases will increase in a warmer world. “Countries like India are just going to see a lot more climate risks. They’re already seeing a lot at 1.1 degrees global warming, and going to see a lot more at 1.5 and at higher levels, very much,” she says.

Also Read: 2021 heat records show how climate change is intensifying

For Aditi Mukherji, Principal Researcher at the International Water Management Institute, and a lead author, the report is explicitly clear that climate change mitigation and adaptation can’t be done in silos. “The authors are very clear that climate change may be based on basic physics but the way that the impacts interact is actually mediated through societal factors. The same hazard does not lead to disaster in Place A, but leads to a massive disaster in Place B. This is because of underlying differences in vulnerabilities. And those differences are dependent on socio-economic and political histories, colonial histories. So unless you look at it in a more holistic way, that’s a problem,” she says.

Mukherji adds that while the IPCC report has a global perspective, individual countries should use the report as a benchmark to conduct their own climate change assessments. “I do think that a big country like India needs to have its own, regular climate change assessment. That would actually be much more helpful in informing more particular policies in India. IPCC can provide a broad policy direction, but countries really need to do their own assessments,” she says.

Also Read: Why 2022 is a crucial year to stop climate change

One of the points that the report highlights is the need for Climate Resilient Development (CRD). This constitutes pathways where adaptation and mitigation efforts are combined to provide a roadmap for sustainable development. “For India, CRD means that we get to the district level planning and make them climate resilient by looking at long term climate projections and aligning the developmental process with the changes in climatic conditions,” says Anjal Prakash, a lead author on the report andResearch Director of Bharti Institute of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business. Singh adds that synergies exist between adaptation and mitigation options. “They signify these win-win situations to adapt and mitigate at the same time. That, for a country like India is particularly salient, because you got a pot of climate finance, and adaptation and mitigation are always competing for it. So if there are solutions that can meet both goals simultaneously, it’s great.” Singh further says that some adaptation options also have co-benefits when it comes to meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

However, there are limits to how much we can adapt to climate change, which means that adaptation can never be an alternative to deep cuts in GHG emissions. “We canspeak with high confidence that low-emission scenarios permit implementing a wider array of feasible, effective, and low-risk nature-based solutions. Under higher warming levels, they will increasingly be under threat as effectiveness is reduced and biological limits and limits to adaptation are reached,” says Prakash.

Also Read: What will it take for India to show more climate ambition?

India is in a unique situation where it faces multiple climate risks simultaneously. This makes it all the more important that the country has a wide ranging plan in place. While Prakash feels that it’s time that India had a dedicated climate change ministry, Singh says that we need to, at the very least, plan for cascading and compounding risks, and not just for single risks. “Cyclone Amphan and covid intersecting is a compounding risk. A disruption in the food supply chain inland when a major city gets hit by a cyclone is a cascading risk.We don’t have strategies to traverse these kinds of impacts.”

The underlying message of the IPCC reports, including this latest one, is that governments need to have the political will to act now, while there is still time. The scientists have made that job as easy as they possibly can, by laying out all the relevant facts, a broad policy direction and real-world evidence. It is now up to governments to wise up.

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