All Good Things…
We now come to the conclusion of the series – our exploration of what climate change is, what it will mean for India and importantly, what we can do.
Climate change is much more than a 1°C increase in temperature. A consistently warmer temperature fundamentally alters the way air holds moisture: warmer air can hold more vapour resulting in more intense rain alternating with more drought. When coupled with unwise urban planning, this intense rainfall results in floods. Plants cannot adapt to such different patterns of rainfall: agricultural yields to fall steeply if we don’t adapt and it will and has caused extinctions of many species. Seas will rise and there will be salt water intrusion into ground water in coastal zones. There are and will increasingly will be frequent, deadly heat waves, as each new year sets a record in soaring temperatures.
It’s virtually certain that humans have caused this warming through the greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels like coal or diesel and increasing our livestock populations. Carbon dioxide tends to be long lived (some fraction of what we emit now will hang around in the air for thousands of years). This makes it important to consider cumulative emissions when assigning blame and enlisting action.
We saw that this is not going to be an easy problem to solve. Why? Because each country is affected differently by the warming climate: warm, poor countries suffer both because of their already hot climates and their inability to cope, while cooler, wealthier climates suffer relatively less. Consider the US. Responsible for a quarter of global cumulative (1850-2011) Carbon emissions, it does suffer from climate change – California will likely get drier, the southwest will be more plagued by forest fires and the Eastern Seaboard will be buffeted by storms. But there will be benefits as well – lower winter cooling costs, and a longer growing season. More importantly, the US will be able to cope with the changes. This perhaps explains why many Americans increasingly rate climate change pretty low in their list of concerns. There were celebrations about the Paris accord saying it was the tilting point of climate change action, but little has happened since then with richer nations not agreeing to legally binding cuts in emissions.
This means curbing climate change will need a “miracle” as Bill Gates recently called it.
With this in mind, and given India’s relatively small share in emissions and our current developing state, we are better off adapting ourselves to the change and taking “low-hanging” mitigating actions or those with substantial non-climate benefits. Look at this another way, an average Indian emits less than a tenth of what an average American emits. And India’s share of total emissions today is about 5% of total global emissions. Moreover, India will be hit very badly: her agricultural yields are likely to plummet, putting half her population dependent on it at risk. Her already hot climate will become hotter still – making deadly heat waves deadlier still. Her cities will get flooded with terrible regularity and the disease burden will increase. Not a pretty picture.
Here, it is important to bring up the oft-ignored concepts of “Attention” and “Execution”. As a country, we have so many things to do, that the availability of both talented manpower and capable institutions are serious bottlenecks. Rather than say I will lower my emissions (switch to solar, cut coal) AND adapt (develop heat and drought resistant crops, climate-proof my cities, insure my water supplies), better to focus on a small set of actions and execute well.
But this is not a macro-focussed column. So, moving from a macro to a micro perspective, we need to look at what each of us could do to both lower our impact on the climate as well as adapt to it.
In the last article of the series we will consider what are the top 5 actions we can take to both cut down our impact on the climate and help India adapt better.
Climate Change – up close and personal
What we eat has a huge and increasing role in influencing the climate. Surprisingly, the greenhouse emissions from ruminant animals (cows, buffalos etc.) are amongst the largest contributors to India’s overall greenhouse emissions. Perhaps we should be mindful of that when we add our milk to our morning teas. Additionally, the cow that provides our milk will end up as beef and leather, taking with it the enormous amount of water used in growing it. Not a small problem for a water-stressed country like India. Then there is the tremendous problem of food waste – equal to junking 100,000 Taj Mahals every year. In India, it is more an issue of food loss rather than food waste – where a large proportion (30-50%) of our crops rot after they leave the fields. The first-order reason for this is simple – poor cold-chain infrastructure to store and transport our food. But a deeper examination is required. Why haven’t we invested in facilities to store our food, when billions are poured in to ship and store the latest fashions? Is the marketplace for food so warped? Perhaps. We need to solve that first. Because, you will agree with me, I’m sure, that as a collective whole, Indians need better nourishment than the nth pair of new jeans. There are also developed-world echoes in the urban Indian food waste puzzle. Our groceries stock and waste produce, while we often buy what we don’t need and toss it, adding to both the water footprint of the food and the growing solid waste menace in our cities.
There is a great interest in the organic food movement today. But is the organic food movement truly “green”? In earlier articles, we saw that if we did nothing (no GMO, no crop growing measures etc.) our agricultural yields are likely to plummet in the coming years, leaving millions in peril. Our actions and reactions in this realm therefore need to be nuanced. We should encourage research into genetically modified crops (specifically those providing heat and drought resistance) by our government and private universities, subject them to stringent testing and then use them judiciously, while preserving the “natural” genetic libraries. Think of it another way, the climate is changing too fast for crops to adapt naturally, they need our help. Moreover, our soils have a very low organic content – this provides multiple win-win opportunities from rationalising our fertilizer subsidies to using the compost from our food waste and using the manure generated from the animals to enrich our soil. For those opposed to pesticide use (and I will count myself with them), keep in mind that the Bt-resistant cotton has been the single biggest reason for pesticide use coming down in India.
Onto the climate impact of cooking our food: We have a million deaths a year from indoor air pollution – mainly from the black carbon-laden soot that emanates from cooking stoves fuelled by wood and dung. Black carbon warms the climate on a local scale (some scientists consider it the leading cause after carbon dioxide) while wreaking havoc on the lungs and other organs of those exposed to it. Solutions exist in improved cook stoves that small companies are beginning to come out with. We need to build awareness on this issue and act on it.
Next we considered the climate impact of how we move. We discovered that the vast majority of Indians don’t play a significant role now, but choices we make today (build roads vs. build trains) will lock us into a high-carbon or a low-carbon transport path for decades to come. Our over-crowded and growing cities provide another reason to move differently. While a relatively poor country like India may not be able to splurge on metros for every city or every route, the rapid transit bus system (BRTS) requires a far lower investment of funds while offering much the same benefits. Of course, there is the psychological backbone of discipline and the institutional will to design an effective, complete system to make the BRTS work, or it will become yet another bus in our crowded roads.
We also saw that how we drive has almost a big of a “climate-saving” effect as what we drive: this involves making sure our tyres are properly inflated and that we drive at the right speeds without jerking. The current darling of green transportation: electric cars are not quite as green as they are made out to be, especially when powered by grids powered primarily by burning coal.
A Warmer World…A Different World
We then considered the climate-impact of our homes. We looked at how our electricity can be very “climate friendly” if it were to be produced from hydro-power or wind energy or can be very “dirty” if produced from coal. We also saw that we only optimise what we pay for, and so, since many in India do not pay for electricity, it is unlikely we will get the necessary improvements. It is critical that each member directly pay for what they consume – only then will there be the incentive to conserve. How can we conserve electricity? Several solutions exist: from changing to LED bulbs for lighting, right-sizing our appliances and going for the energy-efficient Avatar of those appliances and planting trees. Then of course, we looked at the tremendous and growing problem of Municipal Solid Waste – just 6 of India’s largest cities generate more than 10.5 million tonnes of solid waste a year – that’s like adding a fully grown adult blue whale to the landfills every week of the year. Ouch! The problems this waste cause are horrific: from encouraging mosquito growth, to poisoning our ground water, to supporting the stray dog menace to causing tremendous health problems for the thousands of rag pickers in India.
We also discovered that this is a solvable problem. I shared the results from the experiment in my house where we reduced our solid waste by 40% (and the amount we sent out into the corporation by over 85%) in less than 5 months. Our lessons were: Buy what you need, buy good-quality produce, store well and transparently, segregate your waste and compost. As an aside: our waste has fallen another 10% in the last two months since the article has been written. The alchemical step in solving the waste problem is segregation. If we do that, the solution is in sight.
An important element of the climate change issue is water. A hotter atmosphere stores more moisture resulting in stormier weather that results in floods when matched with cities that have built over their water-coping mechanisms. In India, water, although celebrated by our various religions and beliefs, is not priced today and hence not valued as it should be. Agriculture, the largest water user, is not charged for it and so does not adopt the most-water-saving crops or technologies. India has become the largest exporter of beef and one the largest exporters of leather despite the fact that producing a kilogram of beef used up 15000 m3of our water (compared with <1500 m3 per kg of soya). We produce our rice by wasteful flood irrigation, and we have built over many of our water bodies in our cities leading to water shortages in the summers and flooding during the rainy season. Israel, with its brilliant water strategy, shines as a beacon of hope. Israel uses only the water it produces in a given year: whether by rain, from desalination or from treating its waste water. By pricing its water, it makes drip irrigation feasible and by conducting continuous and productive research, it has one of the highest agricultural yields in the word. Every child in Israel knows the value of water and the proof of the pudding is that despite being a desert nation, Israel exports fresh water!
Lastly we considered the impact of the changing climate on our health. The warming climate puts a heavy load on the most vulnerable of us: our poor who work out in the open, plus the very young and very old (another significant portion), plus a large proportion of women. There are the direct impacts such as the increased heat stress, the diahorrhea and the other ailments that come from exposure to storms and flooding. Then there are the indirect impacts. First, the increased mosquito burdens like Dengue, next those that result from falling nutrition or difficult working conditions and lastly, the tremendous problems of conflict and migration. Syria provides a visible and violent example of what climate change-triggered-conflict would be like – something that will become increasingly common in the coming years. We saw that a large, vulnerable population – our women – are likely to be especially hit by the warming climate and require our awareness and support.
So there it is. Climate Change is a big and serious problem. India is in the cross hairs. And we can and should act.
(Image Courtesy: AFP: Sajjad Hussain)