Government report forecasts worrying climate change outlook for India

India's average temperature by the end of this century could be as much as 4.4 deg C higher than the 1976-2005 average. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Casting dark clouds on India's climate change assessment, a government report has said the nation's average temperature by the end of this century could be as much as 4.4 deg C higher than the 1976-2005 average.

India's average temperature, it adds, has already increased by around 0.7 deg C between 1901 and 2018, mainly due to greenhouse gas emissions.

The report, yet to be released officially by the Ministry of Earth Sciences but available publicly online, lists a host of other potential worrying impacts. Among them, heat waves will likely spike in frequency by three to four times, and last twice as long.

A 6 per cent decline in summer monsoon precipitation, a crucial source of irrigation for millions of farmers, from 1951 to 2015 has increased the propensity for droughts. The report warns of a high likelihood of more frequent droughts - more than two events per decade - that will be more intense and widespread by the end of the 21st century.

This first-of-its-kind comprehensive climate change assessment for India, authored by scientists at Pune's Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, added that these rapid climatic changes will put increasing stress on the country's natural ecosystems, agricultural output and freshwater resources, and also cause greater damage to infrastructure.

The impact of climate change on the availability of freshwater is a "critical area of concern" for India, it stated. There is a growing probability of droughts and floods, which will have a detrimental impact on surface and groundwater recharge, posing threats to the country's water security.

"I am extremely worried about the report's prognosis," said Mr Nagraj Adve, a Delhi-based climate change activist and member of Teachers Against Climate Crisis, a group that seeks to raise awareness about climate change among college and university students. "It makes clear how certain current impacts, such as sea-level rise in the North Indian Ocean, have clearly accelerated and how they are going to further intensify," he told The Straits Times.

One of the aspects Mr Adve said he is particularly concerned about is how the average temperature rise of 4.4 deg C predicted in the report for the period between 2070-2099, implies a greater rise in the Himalayas where temperatures are known to be warming up faster than in the rest of the world. Using the same emissions scenario, the report says that the average increase in surface air temperature over the Hindukush Himalayas could be anywhere between 4.3 and 6.1 deg C for the period from 2070 and 2099.

"This implies there will be far, far more - not just, glacial melt but also significant changes in the precipitation pattern. There will be less snow and more rainfall because it is getting warmer," he said.

This could have far-reaching consequences on locals, including millions of farmers who depend on meltwater for irrigation. The report said efforts to build climate resilience will also have to factor in equity and social justice, "since the most vulnerable people such as the poor, the disabled, outdoor labourers and farmers will bear the brunt of climate change impacts".

Mr Adve added that the report's prediction of a rise in the intensity of tropical cyclones should also prompt greater institutional preparedness to deal with their impact. Recalling a cyclone which struck West Bengal last month and caused extensive damage and fatalities, he said: "Amphan has shown that the preparation is uneven across the country."

While India is the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide globally, its emissions are ranked 140th on a per capita basis.

As part of its pledges to the Paris Agreement on climate change, it promised to ensure that 40 per cent of its electricity-generation capacity will be based on non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. It has also pledged a 33-35 per cent cut by 2030 in its "emissions intensity" - the ratio of total emissions to gross domestic product - compared to 2005 levels.

Mr Chandra Bhushan, the founder of Delhi-based think tank International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology, pointed out that the impacts detailed in the government report, while localised, are linked to a rise in global emissions.

This implies that any attempt at mitigating these changes would require a global effort which has fallen short of requirements to meet targets set in the Paris Agreement.

He, however, argued that India is positioned ideally to "pole-vault" into a world where renewables have emerged as more competitive than current polluting technologies. This transition is critical because India's emissions risk rising significantly if it continues development along its current technology trajectory that is heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

"India is growing at a time when renewables are competing with coal, electric vehicles will compete with internal combustion engines, green buildings will compete with conventional buildings," he told The Straits Times. "I think we have to take this opportunity when in all the critical sectors we are at an inflection point in technology."

Other key observations:

- Sea surface temperature (SST) of the tropical Indian Ocean has risen by 1 deg C on average during 1951-2015, higher than the global average SST warming of 0.7 deg C over the same period.

- Sea-level rise in the North Indian Ocean (NIO) occurred at a rate of 1.06-1.75mm per year in 1874-2004. This has accelerated to 3.3mm per year in 1993-2017.

- By the end of this century, steric sea level in the NIO is projected to rise by approximately 300 mm relative to the average over 1986-2005. The corresponding projection for the global mean rise is approximately 180mm.

- Besides greater adoption of renewables, the report said forests and urban green spaces will mitigate a wide range of the expected impact of climate change in India.

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