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India - and its poor - stand to be worst affected by climate change | Image credit: inthefieldstories.net

Climate change – shaping the health and economy of the nation

Climate change has caused global average temperatures to rise one degree above pre industrial levels. Unless emissions are rapidly reduced, temperatures could rise 1.5°C by 2040, 2°C by 2065 and 4°C by 2100.This fact assumes tremendous significance in light of the fact that already with one degree rise the world is facing extreme weather events from floods in Kerala, to wildfires in California, interspersed with incidences of droughts, hurricanes, and glacial melt across the world.

Global climate is changing faster than at any other point in the history of the civilization, as was pointed out by the US National assessment on climate change published last week. The recently released analysis by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also presented a stark warning on greater frequency of cyclones, droughts and wildfires across the world. It showed that the costs of action today, are much lesser than the cost of inaction in the future.

Closer home, it is now clear that the fury of floods in Kerala happened due to climate change. Extreme unpredictable rainfall was a result of the changed climate. At the end of August this year, the total destruction from these floods had reached Rs. 20,000 crore. The economic loss from these floods over a month alone has exceeded damage from all flooding in 2017 and took an estimated dent of 1% GDP growth for the state. For a country which is poised for growth and set to emerge as a leading global power, costs for recovery from large scale disasters such as floods and droughts, that take months and even years, and can wipe out years of developmental progress and economic growth.

The cost of damage by recent cyclones Gaja and Titli is much less, but points to a trend that a changing climate is leading to increased frequency of such events. The wildfires in California, which are currently underway, have been the deadliest fires ever in the history of the state. Antarctica has lost as much ice in the last five years, as it has ever lost before. The last three years have been consecutively warmer than the preceding one. These are not chance facts, but a clear trend that climate change is happening now, and it is altering the course of the planet.

It is certain that the poor and vulnerable are the first suffer at the hands of such events. Again, the IPCC analysis demonstrates that if the world is preparing for a two degree rise, if will largely only protect those who have the means to deal with it. The poor will suffer. If policies are made such that temperature increase can be limited to 1.5 degrees, then we can say that the poor will be protected. It is ironic that adding all global commitments in the Paris Agreement, the world is on a pathway of temperature rise of 3.5 degrees above pre industrial levels. We are set on a path of runaway climate change, unless globally there is collective effort and each country, especially the big emitters, step up and take action.

Let us take a moment to talk of another linked crisis which 95 pc of the country is reeling under. Air pollution. There has been overwhelming focus on Delhi’s deteriorating air quality which has led to several notifications like ban on firecrackers, odd even car scheme over two years back, as also penalizing stubble burning happening in the fields of Punjab and Haryana, which is a contributor to the problem of foul air in Delhi. None of these are isolated causes singularly responsible for Delhi’s foul air, yet all of them cumulatively create a level of pollution, which is on an average, ten times above WHO limits.

Pollution is not limited to Delhi. Each city, rural area, and industrial cluster across the country has air pollution as a rampant problem, with sources of pollution differing from one place to another. Cities like Lucknow, Kanpur, Varanasi, Ghaziabad and even Gurgaon are choking away to their future. Vehicle emissions, industrial pollution, exhaust from thermal power plants, local waste burning, construction dust, agricultural residue burning are crucial sources of pollution, requiring political attention, and stringent laws to solve the problem. Unless that doesn’t happen, even if citizens are aware, the needle won’t move towards a cleaner India.

I recently participated in the first ever global conference on air pollution which was organized by the WHO in Geneva in Nov 2018. It was sad to learn that India recorded the highest number of air pollution induced deaths of children below five years in 2016. At least one lakh children below five years died in that year due to health complications with outdoor and indoor air pollution. For a young country that has a large youth population, these numbers are not mere statistics, rather they are going to define the health of the nation for years to come.

We also know from the reputed Lancet analysis that exposure to ambient air pollution has resulted in some 30 lakhs premature deaths per year globally, with over half a million of these occurring in India. Increased mortality due to respiratory disorders, heart diseases and lung cancer are now linked to breathing foul air. Dr Arvind Kumar, a leading pulmonologist of Delhi has shown a remarkable rise of lung cancer in younger individuals, non-smokers and women. Conventional wisdom said smoking is the main cause of lung cancer, but sadly air pollution is a big culprit now.

The 2018 Lancet Assessment, Shaping the Health of Nations for Centuries to Come, an authoritative analysis by the top 27 leading global academics including the United nations, says it clearly and confidently that unless the world transitions to a low-carbon economy, climate change will undermine the very viability of health systems across the globe.

Climate change is a matter of our health, our lives, and our livelihoods. It is affecting the environment, but equally affecting the economy of our country and that of every single one on this planet.

As I prepare to attend the upcoming United nations annual climate change conference, to start off in Poland on 2 Dec, I am writing this with a sense of some despair that we might not be able to piece our world together, if we don’t take nature’s warnings seriously. The time to act is now. The responsibility is on people, but it is foremost on the governments to act wisely, and not consider environment protection a hindrance in economic development, but as a necessary and legitimate part of it.

 

Aarti Khosla is a senior writer with CarbonCopy.info

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