India's fight against climate change makes it one to watch

How the country develops solutions to problems posed by global warming could be instructive

A woman covers her baby during a heatwave in New Delhi. A study published last October said India has experienced a 55 per cent rise in deaths linked to extreme heat. EPA
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One of the reasons that climate change is such a critical issue is the sheer number of people whose lives it affects. This is particularly the case in India — a rapidly developing economic and political power that is predicted to overtake China as the world’s most populous country.

This claim is based on projections rooted in UN data from 2022 that estimates India’s population, which is already more than 1.4 billion people, will pass China’s this year. This presents challenges and opportunities for India, but none more so than in terms of global warming.

Last Friday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a World Bank meeting that there needed to be a “mass movement” against climate change, one that moved the conversation from “discussion tables to dinner tables” and encouraged citizens to take daily, simple actions to support the environment. This call is a timely one given that India faces several of the serious challenges presented by rising temperatures and extreme weather.

The India Meteorological Department says that February was the country’s warmest in the past 122 years, with average maximum temperatures recorded at 1.73°C above normal. The agency also issued a warning about heatwaves from March to May in many regions of central and north-west India.

This extreme heat casts a shadow over Indian agriculture, an important part of the country’s economy. A lack of winter rain has driven up temperatures in some parts of India's northern states where wheat is mostly grown, triggering threats of a severe heatwave that could lead to crop damage.

Scorching summer temperatures last year also strained the country’s electricity grid, leading to power cuts caused by a rise in the need for air conditioning and the increased demand for power as the economy opened up after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Climate change poses serious risks to India’s people. A study published in The Lancet medical journal last October said the country had experienced a 55 per cent rise in deaths linked to extreme heat. The research also claimed that in 2021, the loss of labour due to rising temperatures cost the country the equivalent of 5.4 per cent of GDP in lost incomes.

These issues are compounded by India’s rapid urbanisation, as more and more people move to the country’s cities to earn a living and increase the demand for energy. The UN estimates that by 2030, more than 400 million people will live in cities across the nation. Cities occupy just three per cent of India’s land but account for 60 per cent of India’s GDP.

Given its size and importance, the country is an important one to watch. Although it is witnessing some of the worst effects of climate change it is also developing policies and strategies to mitigate it. A World Economic Forum report in January noted that India was using “indigenous technology” to optimise resources and promote green energy. It also welcomed India’s co-founding with France of the International Solar Alliance that was “leading the global movement towards solar power, with a focus on promoting energy access and transition”.

India currently holds the presidency of the G20, giving it a major global platform to contribute to the climate change debate. Today it is hosting its 100th G20 meeting — that of senior international agricultural scientists — and climate issues are playing a prominent role. As an economic and political power, India has much to contribute. Its battle to contain the worst effects of climate change could also prove instructive to the rest of the world.

Published: April 19, 2023, 3:00 AM