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Extreme weather patterns could rain on India’s economic growth parade

Climate Change could lead to a 15% decline in ‘outdoor working capacity’, reduce the quality of life of up to 480 mn people, and cost 2.8% of GDP by 2050
Last Updated : 11 May 2023, 10:57 IST
Last Updated : 11 May 2023, 10:57 IST

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India has already experienced its third hottest April and the hottest March in 120 years, even as it braces for the first of the summer cyclones, ‘Mocha’ developing in the Bay of Bengal. Unseasonal rains and hailstorms have damaged ripening, winter-planted crops such as wheat, chickpea, potatoes, and fruit and vegetable crops in India's fertile northern, central and western plains.

There is a marked increase in respiratory viral infections, including H2N3, adenoviruses, and swine flu, in many parts of India. In April, 12 people died from heatstroke and many others were admitted to hospital after attending a government-sponsored event in an open ground under a blazing sun in Navi Mumbai, in Maharashtra. The Ministry of Earth Sciences reported that lightning strikes claimed 907 lives just in 2022.

Are these frequent and intense extreme weather events caused by Climate Change? Until recently, climate scientists would have had difficulty answering this question. However, a new type of research called attribution science can quantify Climate Change’s influence more precisely. It can determine, not if Climate Change caused an event, but if Climate Change made some extreme events more severe and more likely to occur, and if so, by how much.

The World Weather Attribution (WWA) initiative, a collaboration of scientists around the world, does real-time analyses of extreme events right after they occur to figure out how much Climate Change played a role in them. Attribution science figures out the likelihood or severity of a particular event happening today compared to how it might have unfolded in an imaginary world that humans have not warmed.

According to the WWA’s report, the heatwave which scorched northwest India and Pakistan in 2022 was made 30 times more likely due to Climate Change. The results showed that an event like the recent heatwave is still rare, with a 1 percent chance of happening each year. However, Climate Change caused by greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels has made it about 30 times more likely to happen. This means that it would have been an extraordinarily rare event without the effects of anthropogenic Climate Change.

Another analysis published last year by Britain’s met office found that the heatwave was probably made 100 times more likely by anthropogenic Climate Change. Its analysis examined how Climate Change increased the risk of such heat, using the record-setting event in April and May of 2010 as a benchmark. In the absence of Climate Change, an event like the 2010 heat wave would be expected only every 300 years, the analysis found. Factoring in the effects of increasing heat-trapping gases from the burning of fossil fuel, the researchers now expect record-breaking temperatures about every three years.

A December 2022 World Bank report projects that ‘up to 75 percent of India's workforce, or 380 million people, depend on heat-exposed labour, at times working in potentially life-threatening temperatures. By 2030, India may account for 34 million of the projected 80 million global job losses from heat-stress-associated productivity decline’. India showed the largest heat exposure impact on heavy labour among South Asian countries, with more than 101 billion hours lost a year.

About 90 percent of India's total area now lies in extreme heat danger zones, and this could ultimately lead to a 15 percent decline in ‘outdoor working capacity’, reduce the quality of life of up to 480 million people, and cost 2.8 percent of GDP by 2050, according to a team of scholars led by the University of Cambridge's Ramit Debnath. Falling productivity caused by extremely high temperatures could already be costing India 5.4 percent of its GDP, according to the Climate Transparency Report published in 2022.

An analysis by McKinsey & Company shows that lost labour from rising heat and humidity alone could put up to 4.5 percent of India's GDP — approximately $150-250 billion — at risk by the end of this decade. Even a small dip in GDP growth due to extreme heat in the current fiscal year, just when the Indian economy is trying to emerge from various domestic and global challenges, could have a telling macro impact across sectors.

The question is whether India is prepared to face the Climate Change challenge and develop resilience. The answer is yes. India has one of the best heat action plans, early warning systems, and disaster response capacities to save lives, and it has an ambitious decarbonising agenda. However, it needs trillions of dollars to deal with the unpredictability of Climate Change impacts even as it ensures intergenerational equity and sustainability.

(Shailendra Yashwant is a senior adviser to Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 11 May 2023, 09:08 IST

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