Essay: Heat Mortality and Energy Policy in the Changing Indian Climate

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  • Published on: October 30, 2018
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I. Introduction

The Republic of India has emerged as a regional and global power with massive economic growth and a flourishing young citizenry, despite pressing problems such as overpopulation, environmental degradation, poverty, and corruption. Building a new India for 1.3 billion people, and whether it relies on fossil fuels or renewable energy, will be a major factor determining the severity of climate change experienced worldwide.

Unchecked global warming will hit the country hard, increasing extreme weather, like the floods that killed thousands in August 2017, and affecting the monsoon season upon which India’s farmers depend. Heatwaves already cause thousands of deaths in India and rising temperatures that make outdoor work impossible have led to labor-equivalent losses of half-a-million people since 2000 (CITE). In the coming years, heatwaves could reach a level of humid heat class posing “extreme danger” for three-quarters of India’s population (CITE).

Despite compelling reasons for India to follow a sustainable path, serious obstacles remain. Traditional adaptation and mitigation efforts may not work in a country as geographically and socially extensive as India. And, what happens in India matters for the rest of the world. It is therefore important to consider innovative methods to combat the impacts of climate change in India that can then be brought to other developing countries, proving that it is possible to skip the pollution-intensive, fossil fuel-based stage of national growth.

II. Background

India is projected to be the fastest growing economy in the world and, if current estimates hold, will soon be the world’s largest country by population. Rapid economic and population growth will also make it the world’s fifth largest economy. Measured in purchasing power, the country is already number three (CITE: World Bank). Home to nearly one-fifth of the world’s population with over 1.3 billion residents, India is a study in contrasts. With the exception of the deserts and mountains in the north, high population density exists throughout most of the country. The core of the population is along the banks of the Ganges River, but other valleys and coastal areas also have large population centers. The 29 states and 7 union territories range from Uttar Pradesh in the northeast with more than 200 million people to island territories (CITE). Unfortunately, some of the largest states are also the poorest. Uttar Pradesh and neighboring Bihar have a combined population equal to that of the United States, but a pooled gross domestic product (GDP) less than Michigan (CITE). The GDP per capita of Delhi, the National Capital Territory, is roughly equal to that of Indonesia. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, India’s poorest states, have GDPs on par with sub-Saharan Africa (CITE). Geographical disparities matter much more in India than in other large countries as well. Delhi’s GDP per capita is eight times that of Bihar (CITE).

India’s economy encompasses traditional village farming, modern agriculture and industries, decorative craftwork, and a number of service sectors. Slightly less than half of the workforce is in agriculture, around 47%. Approximately 60% of India’s landmass is reserved for agriculture, although this accounts for only 17% of the country’s GDP (CITE). Services are the major source of economic growth, accounting for nearly two-thirds of India’s output but employing less than one-third of the labor force. Per capita income remains below the world average. According to 2011 census estimates, more than 20% of the population lives below the poverty line (CITE).

Indian society is unique. The National Census of India does not recognize racial or ethnic groups within the country, but instead refers to them as Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Both terms are defined in the Constitution of India and include various officially designated groups of historically disadvantaged people. Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes comprise about 16.6% and 8.6%, respectively, of India’s population according to The Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) of 2011 (CITE). In parliament and state legislatures, caste and tribe-based seat reservations are provided to make the government more representative.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi strategically chose his election slogan “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (“Together with All, Progress for All”), with the goal to overcome India’s regional disparities (CITE). His Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power in 2014 on the votes of India’s poorest states and the people most excluded from India’s economic growth, who constitute a quarter of the total population. However, India will need more regional growth and generous fiscal re-allocation to poorer states to overcome its extreme inequalities. India as a whole won’t reach middle-income status until it includes poorer states in the “Incredible India” economy experienced by others (CITE).

III. Energy and Environment

India continues to rely heavily on its coal reserves, which are the fifth largest in the world. India is ranked second in the world in coal production (CITE). Of the most polluting nations in the world, only India’s carbon emissions are rising: almost 5% in 2016 and 7.7% by the beginning of 2018 (CITE). However, the country’s current emissions per person remain relatively small at around 1.7 metric tons per capita compared to United States per capita emissions of over 16 metric tons (CITE).

Commercial coal mining in India is dictated by domestic consumption, but the natural fuel value of Indian coal is poor. Due to high demand and poor average quality, India is forced to import high-quality coal to meet the needs of consumers (CITE). The energy derived from coal in India is about twice that of the energy derived from oil. In comparison, worldwide, energy derived from coal is about 30% less than energy derived from oil (CITE). Industries in India consumed 833 million tons of coal in 2015 and 2016 (CITE). India’s electricity sector consumed about 72% of the coal produced in the country in 2013 (CITE). As of October 2017, the installed capacity of coal power in India was 186,492.88 million Watts, although over 200 million residents still do not have access to electricity (CITE). Coal power accounts for approximately 60% of the total installed capacity. In total, 71.5% of total installed electricity capacity came from fossil fuels (CITE).

India’s reliance on fossil fuels makes it one of the largest producers of carbon dioxide emissions in the world. Carbon dioxide emissions from energy consumption in India are estimated around 1.667 million tons (CITE). India’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for the Paris Agreement sets targets to lower emissions between 33%–35% below 2005 levels. They also hope to increase the share of non-fossil power generation capacity to 40% (equivalent to 26–30% of generation) and to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5–3 GtCO2e by planting additional forest and tree cover by 2030 (CITE). However, two 2017 publications by a government contractor increased international concern about India’s commitment to low-carbon economic growth. The government’s Draft National Energy Policy and Three Year Action Agenda both include recommendations to increase domestic production and distribution of coal, oil, and gas (CITE x2). While the stated aim of this expansion of domestic fossil fuel production and distribution is to enhance India’s energy security, it will also encourage fossil-based energy demand and increase emissions. Domestic fossil fuel production is not the only way to meet India’s energy security objective. The deployment and escalation of renewables in the country in the last few years pr
oves these resources can provide access to affordable power both quickly and at large scales. The Draft National Energy Policy projects that more than 60% of generation capacity from the electricity sector will be based on renewables by 2040.

The outlook for India’s long-term growth is moderate due to a young population, low dependency ratio, healthy savings and investment rates, and increasing integration into the global economy (CITE). However, long-term challenges remain. Climate change is a threat to India’s continued economic growth. Current natural threats like rising temperatures, drought, flash floods, destructive monsoon rains, and severe thunderstorms will only intensify with climate change. A huge and growing population is already straining the country’s natural resources. Environmental issues such as deforestation, soil erosion, overgrazing, desertification, air pollution, and water pollution will persist and worsen. Climate change will also impact social problems, including: discrimination against women and girls; power generation and distribution; intellectual, mineral, and property rights; civil litigation; transportation and agricultural infrastructure; non-agricultural employment opportunities, government spending and subsidies; basic and higher education; and, rural-to-urban migration.

The World Economic Outlook of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), released in September 2017, highlights some of the economic impacts of weather events, particularly for low-income countries. The IMF notes that for the median emerging market economy, growth goes down by 0.9% because of a corresponding 1°C increase from a temperature of 22°C. The impact on the median low-income developing country is even higher. Output also does not recover quickly after a significant weather event. Even after seven years, the per capita output is lower by 1% for the median emerging market and 1.5% for the median low-income country (CITE).

Weather and changing climate patterns affect productivity in general. Research shows that productivity starts declining strongly after peaking at an average annual temperature of about 13°C (CITE). Therefore, countries located in areas with higher temperature will face disproportionate impacts from global warming. India falls squarely into this category. Climate change models, such as those developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), predict that temperatures in India are likely to rise between 3°C and 4°C by the end of the 21st century (CITE). Much of South Asia could be too hot for people to survive, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (CITE).

IV. Agriculture and Heat Mortality

Current and future climate implications in India are especially apparent in states and populations reliant on agriculture. The 2017-18 Economic Survey conducted by the Indian Ministry of Finance noted that climate change has already impacted farm productivity and farmers’ incomes (CITE). The effects are felt when temperatures are higher, rainfall significantly decreased, and the number of “dry days” greater than normal. Such conditions are more damaging in unirrigated lands compared to irrigated areas. Around 52% of India’s total land under agriculture is still unirrigated and remains dependent on rain. The change in agricultural productivity as a result of climate change could reduce agricultural incomes between 15% and 18%, on average, and between 20% and 25% in unirrigated areas.

Between 2012 and 2017 India experienced a period of prolonged drought, with rainfall roughly 20% below average nationwide. In the nation’s agricultural areas to the west and north the situation was far worse. In Punjab, India’s “bread basket”, rainfall was 70% below average (CITE). Farmers turned to expensive, diesel-powered electric pumps to tap groundwater supplies and irrigate their crops. This caused aquifer levels to drop up to 60 meters in Punjab and nearly 200 meters in Gujarat (CITE). Millions have fled the drought, which the government said affected about 330 million people, nearly a quarter of the population (CITE). Internally-displaced populations have moved into already overcrowded cities.

Compared to Europe in 2003 or Chicago in 1995, far more Indian lives are at risk from heatwaves. Heatwave vulnerability maps generated in 2017 identified 10 very high risk and 97 high risk districts of the 640 districts acknowledged in the 2011 census (CITE). These districts are generally less urbanized, have low rates of literacy, and are located in states with a combined population of over 220 million (CITE). Residents are primarily employed in agriculture, but, in general, more jobs in India, like trash collection, street-sweeping, farming, construction, etc., are done by manual labor. Poverty and sub-standard housing also compound the effects of extreme temperatures in these districts.

A number of studies have linked heatwaves and mortality around the world. In the World Bank’s assessment of global climate change impacts, temperature rise and heat mortality in India were prominently featured (CITE). The World Bank found, “[h]eat waves are likely to result in a very substantial rise in mortality and death, and injuries from extreme weather events are likely to increase.” Despite being among the deadliest natural disasters, heatwaves are largely invisible. They leave no wrecked buildings or visible scars behind. Heat frequently kills indirectly, by fatally stressing pre-existing health conditions. The toll is only evident much later, statistically lagging behind the days the temperature climbed. Heat kills the most vulnerable and overlooked: the elderly or already sick, the socially isolated, and the working poor who must choose between laboring in the heat or going without food.

A study by Guo et al. 2017 assessed and compared heatwaves and their health implications in 400 communities over 18 different regions around the world. Certain populations were more vulnerable and burdened by prolonged changes in temperature than others. The number of days of extreme heat did not matter so much as the community’s acclimatization to warmer temperatures. In all countries and regions studied, heatwaves were associated with an increased risk of death and the risk remained for nearly a week after temperatures stabilized.

The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment devoted an entire chapter to “Temperature-Related Death and Illness” (CITE). The authors noted four key findings. First, a future increase in heat-related deaths overall. Second, small fluxes in temperature can affect rates of illness and mortality. Third, the world’s population is developing a tolerance for extreme heat. And, finally, certain populations and communities are more at risk from extreme heat. These include the very young and very old, the sick, manual laborers, those who are isolated or disadvantaged, and some people of color.

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