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

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  • Heat Mortality and Energy Policy in the Changing Indian Climate
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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.

Specific impacts in India have been detailed in multiple articles and compliment the findings of Guo et al. 2017 and Sarofim et al. 2016. In 2015, Regional Environmental Change published, “Intensification of future severe heat waves in India and their effect on heat stress and mortality” (CITE). Using climate models and scenarios, Murari et al. offered the first projections of future heatwaves in India. Their paper suggests that heatwaves will become more intense, long-lasting, frequent, and arrive earlier each year. They also predict that heatwaves will spread into regions of the country that have not experienced them previously, such as southern India. The average number of days of extreme heat stress in northern India will rise to an average of 30 days. The entirety of India is expected to experience rising temperatures and heatwaves by the end of the twent
y-first century. The intensification and spread of heatwaves across the country will lead to increased mortality.

This article was followed by a similar study in Science Advances in 2017 entitled, “Increasing probability of mortality during Indian heat waves” (CITE). By analyzing data from 1960 to 2009, Mazdiyasni et al. were able to model and predict an increase in heatwaves and heat-related deaths. The data from the India Meteorological Department revealed that mean temperatures across India rose by more than 0.5°C between 1960 and 2009, accompanied by a significant statistical increase in heatwaves. Mazdiyasni and his fellow authors went on to correlate the increase in summer temperatures in India to an 146% increase in heat-related deaths of more than 100 people at a time. Looking ahead, the authors predicted that future climate change and warming in India will lead to even further increases in heat-related mortality.

V. Air Conditioning

As Indians grow richer they should be better able to protect themselves from the heat. Informational campaigns can provide guidance for staying relatively cool and avoiding heatstroke or worse. OSHA’s “Water.Rest.Shade.” campaign alerts laborers to the danger of prolonged exposure in the United States (CITE). The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) suggests using fans to circulate air, opening windows at night, and closing doors and curtains during the day to trap cooler air indoors for as long as possible. Residents ill-adjusted to the heat are advised to take advantage of the cooling power of water and ice to soak their feet and stay hydrated. Those living in multi-story homes are told to descend to the lowest floor or belowground and to turn off heat-generating appliances. If none of these measures are sufficient, Americans can always visit a public building with air conditioning, like a library, shopping mall, or movie theater (CITE). This advice serves developed nations well, but is not applicable in countries like India where a significant percent of the populations does not have access to electricity, water is rationed or polluted, and laborers cannot afford to spend a hot day resting at home.

Most Americans also have access to air conditioning window units, which are relatively inexpensive to purchase and plug into a standard electrical outlet. However, in India, where not all residents have access to electricity and the majority of electricity is generated by fossil fuels, the mass-installation of air conditioning to combat rising temperatures from climate change presents more issues than it resolves.

The share of Indian households with air conditioning is very small, around 5%, compared to 87% of American households (CITE). Rising incomes and low production costs have made air conditioning units affordable, and rising temperatures have made them a necessity. The world is on track to add 700 million more units by 2030, and 1.6 billion by 2050. These air conditioning units will mostly be purchased in developing countries like India and Indonesia (CITE). Indians alone purchased more than 5 million units in 2016 (CITE). However, India’s economic and air conditioning boom will also create new problems. Air conditioning requires refrigerants. Some models still use hydrofluorocarbons, a powerful greenhouse gas with more warming potential than carbon dioxide. If the use of hydrofluorocarbons in air conditioning units continues on pace, they could make up as much as 19% of emissions by 2050 (CITE). In Rwanda in 2016, negotiators amended the Montreal Protocol to phase out the use of the most potent refrigerants. India has until 2028 to start its reductions (CITE).

Air conditioning also consumes a huge amount of electricity. Generating, supplying, and distributing the ever-growing load may require countries to build new power plants and some of those power plants may use fossil fuels as an energy source. The Indian government has begun a program to reduce the energy demand from air conditioning. Like the US EPA’s Energy Star, it is a rating system meant to encourage consumers to purchase more efficient units. In the summer of 2016, the Indian government made a bulk purchase of 100,000 super-efficient units and is planning to order another half-a-million (CITE). Even with increasing efficiency and the reduction of refrigerant usage, the energy demand will still be considerable. The amount of air conditioning projected to be installed in India by 2030 will be the equivalent of adding several new countries to the global grid. And, air conditioners already use up to 60% of the electricity in cities like New Delhi (CITE). Meeting that demand as cities grow and more residents purchase units, without burning more fossil fuel for energy, is a challenge the Indian government has yet to address. The demand for air conditioning and the strain it will place on the grid must be considered an integral part of any renewable energy policy adopted by India going forward.

Additionally, the financial burden of operating an air conditioning unit is still too costly for a significant percentage of India’s population. Health officials worry that air conditioning units pump additional heat onto the streets hurting those who cannot afford air conditioning or are forced to move about during the day. The phenomenon of “heat islands” is noticeable as enormous cities store heat in dark surfaces and remain warmer at night. In the interest of development, traditional building tricks like courtyards, breezeways, porches, and other architectural features that promote cooling were abandoned. Developers and designers built solid office towers of glass and mass-produced cookie cutter homes that rely on air conditioning to make them habitable. In the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, a quarter of the population lives in slums, packed together in concrete boxes with tin roofs that turn into ovens whenever the sun shines. As always, the poorest members of society suffer most.

VI. Mitigation and Adaptation

Throughout the period of drought from 2012 to 2017, more than half the population of India experienced rolling blackouts as a result of the loss of hydroelectric power (CITE). In a single day in July of 2012, the power went out across eight northern states leaving 370 million people in the dark and bringing the economy to a standstill (CITE). It became clear that the country’s notoriously unreliable, state-owned grid suffered not just from connectivity, but also generation issues.

In the next ten years, the Indian government plans to electrify another 40 million households and improve access in rural areas where connections are non-uniform and service is intermittent. To meet the demand for electricity, along with the energy to mechanize farming operations and power industry, India plans to invest over $44 billion into smart grid infrastructure (CITE).

India’s National Smart Grid Mission has laid out a deployment schedule for the next ten years (CITE). Utilities are also moving forward independently with smart grids. India’s smart grid market will vary widely across states, with each possessing a unique structure and regulatory framework. Renewable, sustainable energy will be incorporated into the smart grids (CITE). Solar is a particular favorite in India, although the government seems poised to support any form of green power that’s inexpensive and scalable. This includes off-grid enterprises, like solar home systems and decentralized renewable energy. These technologies are better suited to serve inaccessible, rural communities who cannot afford the expense of connecting to the national grid.

The Indian government has said it will cost $250 million to extend electricity to households currently off-grid, $100 million of which is pledged as in
vestment in clean energy technology. The government is hoping to create a favorable environment for investment so that at least 90% of that $250 million will come from the private sector. So far, government policy and regulations have favored solar, with stated goals of reaching 100 gigawatts (GW) of solar-powered capacity by 2022. In total, India announced ambitious goals to increase their renewable power capacity to 175 GW by 2022, with the remaining 75 GW from wind (60 GW), bioenergy (10 GW), and smaller hydroelectric installations (5 GW). If the country succeeds, they will have increased their renewable power capacity five times over. By 2027, India’s draft electricity plan calls for non-fossil fuel based power to make up 57% of capacity (CITE).

India’s renewable energy sector will need an accompanying, strong energy storage industry in order to continue to grow and move into new communities. Energy storage has numerous applications in the country, including renewable integration, grid support, commercial and industrial expansion, and the adoption of electric vehicles. Many technology leaders are calling on the government to make India a global hub for energy storage solutions and manufacturing. The installation of solar-powered microgrids in slums across the country has already proven an effective tool to promote inclusive, low-carbon urban development (CITE). Battery storage could make the patchwork of solutions currently implemented into long-term, grid-interactive, scalable, re-creatable initiatives that allow for changing supply and demand.

Renewable energy technology is quickly becoming cheaper than coal power, incentivizing India and other countries to make the transition away from fossil fuels even more quickly. Reducing dependence on coal, while still meeting the energy needs of a growing population, is good news for all. The Indian government abandoned plans to expand coal capacity by 82 gigawatts in 2016 and the draft electricity plan shows limited growth in coal capacity in the next decade (CITE). The shifts towards renewables would make the mass-installation of air conditioning a more environmentally-tolerable adaptation measure. And, it is important to note, that transitioning towards a renewable infrastructure suggests the country’s willingness to mitigate the impacts of climate change, not just adapt to them.

At the local level, there are a number of behavioral changes that states, cities, and civilians have undertaken to adapt to rising temperatures. Construction companies have shifted working hours to accommodate the hottest part of the day, trees are being planted around buildings and in public spaces to provide much-needed shade, and the tin roofs of slum dwellings are painted white to reflect the sun’s rays. Complex systems of pipes have been installed in office buildings and homes to pump cool water along the ceiling. Evaporative or air coolers are placed in residences, offices, shops, and even some public spaces. One of the largest manufacturers of air coolers in the world, Symphony, is based in India and designs their products specifically for the Indian market and climate. Businesses and office blocks have begun disregarding the prevailing American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ thermal comfort standards in favor of reducing air conditioning in buildings (CITE). Perhaps the best example is the heat advance warning system in Ahmedabad. When the forecast calls for extreme heat, the city’s heat manager sends an alert to health officers, hospitals, the fire department, the police, the parks department, and other officials. Color-coded heat warnings are announced in newspapers, on television, and social media. Phone companies send out text warnings. Social workers go into slums and hand out rehydration packets and pamphlets on heat safety. Hospitals prepare ice packs and heat wards, water stations are set up on street corners. Temples, mosques, and malls become cooling centers. The system works. In 2015, when heatwaves killed over 2,500 people across India, Ahmedabad reported fewer than 20 heat-related deaths (CITE). The model is now being copied by other Indian cities.

Mitigation and adaption in India will be expensive. With every degree of warming, governments and citizens will have to pay more to maintain living standards. It is difficult to adapt to heat equitably or without making the problem worse. When mitigating climate change in India, any cooling solution will require collective action, regulation, subsidies, technological advances, new building designs, and civic programs.

VII. Conclusion

The climate change mitigation and adaptation measures India chooses will ultimately affect the whole world. The country and its leaders have a unique opportunity to trail-blaze by bringing electricity to the poor, building sustainable cities, and lifting the fog of air pollution for its billion-plus population. To do so, India must address and combat rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns that have a disparate impact on the nation’s poor. Clean energy technology is the surest solution to provide relief to communities impacted by climate change, while transitioning the economy away from fossil fuels and without increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable energy sources, coupled with innovative technology and implementation methods, will ensure vulnerable populations are included in the country’s progress and prosperity. In turn, India’s example will be followed by other developing nations around the world.

VIII. Sources

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