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India peers over climate change precipice

India’s worst heatwave in 122 years has set landfills alight and ruined crops. It should prompt all countries to speed up decarbonisation.

By Lyndee Prickitt

New Delhi is no stranger to pollution but the latest round of acrid smoke to hang over the capital is from a 17-story-tall mound of rubbish that spontaneously combusted during India’s sweltering heatwave. This is the fourth landfill fire in the last month, caused by the build-up of methane gas in the heat. The city has had its hottest March and April in 122 years — since the India Meteorological Department’s (IMD) records began — and the heatwave shows little sign of letting up. On Saturday (30 April) the IMD warned that temperatures may pass 50°C.

“Every decade has more heatwaves than the previous,” says Chandra Bhushan, chief executive of the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology. “This is not a freak weather event. It’s been building up over time.” Recent analysis by Mariam Zachariah and Friederike Otto at Imperial College London shows that extreme heat is getting more common and that climate change is clearly behind the trend.

The heatwave, which India public health officials have warned is a threat to lives and livelihoods, started in India’s northern states but is now engulfing much of the south too. Some states have shut schools. The heat, which has come notably early in the year, is most unbearable for India’s millions of farmers and construction workers.

Shiva, 28, works twelve hours a day building homes for Delhi’s rich. He says he has enough water on the compound but he and his fellow workers have to take a ten-minute break in the shade every half hour to stay hydrated. “It’s hard work, but it’s a habit,” he says. “We have no choice in the matter.”

For those lucky enough to work in air-conditioned offices and to live in homes with cooling systems, power cuts ensure they feel the heat too. Surging demand for power has meant a sudden scramble for coal, which accounts for 75 per cent of India’s power generation. Many states are complaining that coal stocks are so low they might only last a few more days. The national government recently warned that power supplies to metro trains and hospitals could be interrupted if coal runs out.

Critics of the Indian government say India’s dependency on coal is only adding to the problems of pollution, global warming and energy shortages. “Of course, India must decarbonise,” Bhushan says. “But India makes up only about 4 per cent of global emissions. If the rest of the world doesn’t decarbonise, especially the big three emitters — China, the US and Europe — the whole world suffers.”

Vibha Dhawan, director of the Energy and Resources Institute, believes the will to decarbonise exists in India, but there needs to be more financing for sustainable initiatives and a more open transfer of technology. “Whatever technology exists needs to be shared,” she says. “The world is in this together, so we shouldn’t worry about intellectual property rights. Transfer the technology and we’ll fine-tune it.”

The developing world could play an important role in not only test-driving the latest technology but customising for a variety of harsh conditions as well as small-scale users, Dhawan says. “We have very smart engineers in India.”  

More efficient technology will certainly be needed, otherwise urban development will simply make problems worse. “India’s cities are heat islands,” Bhushan says. “The air conditioning we’re using, the buildings we’re building, the greeneries we’re cutting and vanishing water bodies make them four to five degrees hotter than rural areas.”

As more rural Indians move into the cities and development rushes to keep up with the population boom, green spaces are often hastily replaced with housing compounds, office blocks and shopping malls. This rapid urbanisation and poor infrastructure, made worse by climate change, means most Indian cities suffer from water shortages too. Thirty Indian cities are likely to face an acute shortage of water by 2050, according to the WWF. India’s water supply is precarious at the best of times and is likely to get worse if the impending monsoon season, which lasts from June to September, does not bring relief and refill rivers, lakes and reservoirs.

People’s livelihoods are also likely to take a hit from the heatwave. A January study by Duke University in North Carolina estimated that India loses about 259 billion hours of labour a year to the impact of humidity and heat, which hotter summers would only exacerbate. Many rickshaw drivers, for instance, will choose not to work in the hottest hours of the day despite the potential loss of income.

Wheat yields have also dropped by 10 to 20 per cent in the unseasonable heat. The timing could not be worse as Narendra Modi, the prime minister, had hoped that India could help to “feed the world” as global food supplies are disrupted by the war in Ukraine, one of the biggest wheat exporters.

If the heatwave persists the mismatch between more general supply and demand could grow, bringing India’s much-anticipated economic revival to a halt. Sanjeev Sanyal, an economist and adviser to the Modi government, played down any immediate economic concerns, however. “Extreme weather events happen,” he said. “They might be painful when they happen — there is an immediate impact on the cost of doing business — but you do have a hot period before the monsoon.”

As India waits for big technological solutions to reduce its emissions and help the country cope with heatwaves, its more frugal innovation — known as “jugaad” — is out in force. Whether it is construction workers with wet towels on their heads or the rickshaw driver who planted grass on his roof, everyone is finding ways to try to keep cool. One of the latest hacks was in the state of Gujarat, where an NGO is helping people living in a crowded urban settlement to paint their roofs white to deflect the sun. It might only cool their one-room brick homes by three or four degrees, but that is a crucial reprieve in this heat.

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