Thanks to ubiquitous camera phones, we have an inside view of disasters like never before. Like the moment when the deluge of water and debris seemed to appear out of nowhere in the Himalayas and washed away people on the dam site within a few seconds. From a distance, it looks like a demonstration of flash floods in a science lab. It is hard to unsee these videos. With a death toll that has mounted to 72 and with 205 people registered as missing, this latest glacial disaster in the state of Uttarakhand in India, has again brought to the fore the debate on the fragility of this ecosystem.
Several groups of scientists and media outlets have conjectured on the reason for the glacial burst, or the accompanying avalanche and flood. While many note that the exact reason might be hard to pin down, one of the main themes that has emerged is the melting of glaciers and subsequent weakening of the bond with the mountain rock.
Even if the exact trigger for this incident is not related to warming, the connection between rising temperatures and frequent landslides or flash floods is established without a doubt. A country like India, where hundreds of millions of people live downstream from the Himalayan glacial tributary system, this should come as an ominous warning.
Climate change is here, and from uncontrollable wildfires in Australia and California, to retreating glaciers in the Alps and the Himalayas, we are witnessing impacts like never before. While all countries will face these impacts, some will have higher costs than others. The economic term for quantifying this is ‘social cost of carbon’ (SCC), i.e. the dollar value of damages that a country will face from one additional ton of CO2 in the atmosphere.
India has the highest social cost of carbon in the world. A recent study estimates that in the ‘middle-of-the-road’ policy scenario, where temperatures are expected to rise by 3°C by 2100, India’s SCC would be ~$85/tCO2, with US a distant second at ~$48/tCO2. Even in the most ‘sustainable’ global policy scenario, India would still lead the world with the highest SSC, and the US would be a ‘closer’ second.
From India’s perspective, it’s a pretty raw deal. Its cumulative contribution to current carbon emissions stock is the lowest amongst the top five emitters, a mere 3.14%. Its annual emissions now stand at 7% of the worldwide emissions. Per capita emissions are one-eighth of the US and less than half of the global average. India still needs room to grow per capita emissions to bring hundreds of millions of people out of the poverty trap. And its window of opportunity to do that continues to shrink as several historically major emitters struggle to commit to Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) compatible with the 2°C pathway.
The central government in India has demonstrated ample commitment to lowering the carbon intensity of the power sector, the largest block of emissions for the country. PM Modi has announced a target of 450 GW of renewable capacity, significantly raising the previous target of 175 GW by 2022.
While India faces a lot of challenges in achieving these targets, in co-founding International Solar Alliance, India has committed itself to a high-solar pathway beyond doubt. Having said that, India would still see a 50% increase in its carbon emissions to 2040 in the current policies scenario, as estimated by the International Energy Agency in the latest India Energy Outlook 2021.
With the new administration at the helm, the US and India can usher a new chapter in the global climate movement. The issue of carbon equity should no longer be skirted around. An acknowledgement of historical responsibility would go a long way in forging the trust in this negotiations process that several in the developing world have lost. A gesture that would ratify the authenticity of the conversation. While nobody is arguing that developing countries should reach the per capita carbon emissions level of the developed world, keeping that metric in the room is integral to a fair exchange.
Thanks to technological advances and plummeting prices, there is not much need to subsidise clean technologies in the power sector anymore. However, financing adaptation measures would be key to preparedness of countries like India to deal with an increasing frequency of climate disasters. The US should drive the step function that is direly needed in adaptation finance. UNEP’s recent Adaptation Gap Report highlighted that developing countries face $70 billion in yearly adaptation costs, likely to rise to $140 billion-$300 billion by 2030, versus current available finance levels of $30 billion.
Additionally, US scientists could build the capacity of Indian planners on data-driven methodologies for improved prediction capabilities, so that disaster preparedness could be undertaken ahead of time. This would include translating the latest research, estimating regions susceptible to sea-level rise or droughts, to actionable insights for Indian policy makers. While continuing its focus on mitigation, India needs to scale up its adaptation efforts at the central as well as state levels. India is well on track to meet the original NDCs, but the ambition can be significantly enhanced in their revised avatar. It could take its cue from the Biden Administration that is approaching the climate issue on a war-footing.
An open dialogue between the US and India would be critical to a productive global climate deliberation at COP26 in Glasgow later this year. Both countries have to do their part in forging a long-lasting collaboration. Let’s act as if our survival depends on it, because it does.