‘Himalayan Glaciers will disappear by 2035’. This was one the very alarming conclusions of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that was brought to my attention when I took over as minister for environment and forests in May 2009. Could this really be true, I wondered. I then decided to convene a series of meetings with experts from different institutions across the country. And what emerged was something different and seemed to question the IPCC’s startling assertion.
Scientists who had been studying Himalayan glaciers for decades told me that (i) Himalayan glaciers are different from Arctic glaciers since their snout (lowest point) is 3,000 metres or more above sea level and so their response to global warming could well be different; (ii) Most of the 10,000-odd Himalayan glaciers on the Indian side are indeed retreating although some like the Gangotri glacier are receding at a decelerating rate and some like the Siachen glacier are, in fact, advancing; and (iii) the health of the Himalayan glaciers is very poor with the proliferation of debris.
I then encouraged VK Raina, a noted geoscientist, who had been studying Himalayan glaciers since the mid-1950s, to prepare a status report based on all the interactions we held. His report was published officially by the ministry of environment and forests in September 2009 and unleashed a global storm. His credentials were attacked. I was myself accused of being a climate change-denier and the IPCC’s chairman, RK Pachauri, termed the Raina report as “voodoo science”. The story finally ended on March 31, 2014, when the IPCC released a report in Yokohoma, Japan, and admitted that its findings that the Himalayan glaciers would completely disappear by 2035 were “erroneous” and that the error was “really serious”.
This was actually not the first time that world science had put India in the dock on climate change issues. In the early 1990s, the US government had put out a report saying that methane emissions from India’s wet paddy cultivation were around 38 million tonnes per year. This figure was challenged by the distinguished Indian physicist, the late AP Mitra, whose painstaking field-level work subsequently established that these emissions were, in fact, much, much lower at 4-6 million tonnes per year. This is important since methane is a more lethal greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
These two episodes show that climate science could well have a covert political agenda and that India needs to establish its own world-class scientific and technological infrastructure in the area of climate change. This was the background to the formation of the Indian Network on Climate Change Assessment (INCCA) in 2010. Almost 250 scientists from some 125 institutions became part of this research network. The INCCA published two landmark reports. The first was a 4x4 assessment — four sectors (agriculture, water, natural ecosystems and biodiversity, and health) and four regions (Himalayan region, North-East, coastal areas and Western Ghats). This analysis was not for some distant future but for the more immediate 2030s. The second was on India’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for the year 2007, making us the first developing country to publish the latest GHG inventory at that time.
The INCCA also took on the responsibility for studying the issue of black carbon in detail. This was a case of India being proactive since it was fast becoming a subject of international discussions and India was coming into the spotlight. In early 2010, a decision was taken to establish a National Centre for Himalayan Glaciology in Dehradun and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke of the need for India to collaborate with other countries in our region. Isro also agreed to (i) launch nano-satellites for providing data on aerosol and carbon dioxide distribution and a dedicated satellite for monitoring greenhouse gases; and (ii) establish an extensive network of automated weather stations and carbon monitoring towers in different climatic zones of the country. The INCCA also initiated the publication of research papers. For instance, one such paper by the eminent space scientist UR Rao argued that a prediction of global warming requires a relook to take into account long-term changes in global cosmic ray intensity, something that has thus far been largely ignored by the global scientific community.
Whatever be our stance in international negotiations, given our multiple vulnerabilities, both current and future, to climate change and our climatic diversities, we must develop our own capacities to measure, model and monitor its impacts. This is an area of strategic importance. Our unique vulnerabilities arise in at least four ways. First, India’s fortunes are still linked in many ways to the monsoon. Second, we have a 7,000-km-long coastline and one fact that has been incontrovertibly established by science is that mean sea levels are rising and will continue to do so. Third, of course, is the importance of the Himalayan glaciers to the water security of over half a billion people in northern and eastern India. And fourth, most of our natural resources that we want to extract for rapid GDP growth like coal and iron ore happen to be in rich forest areas. Extracting these minerals on the scale envisaged will inevitably mean considerable deforestation and this, in turn, will mean a depletion of the absorption capacity of a valuable carbon sink.
To be sure, we must be intimately plugged into the global scientific community working on climate change, taking special advantage of the presence of a number of distinguished Indian diaspora scientists active in this field. But such an engagement must be from a position of domestic strength. Many of the challenges we face are unique to India (for instance, our coal has a very high ash content) for which we have to find solutions on our own. The world has been divided into 16 bio-geographic regions, of which 10 are represented in India. Thus, it is essential to establish long-term ecological observatories to study climate change in these regions on an ongoing basis.
Jairam Ramesh is a former Union minister. He is currently a Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed by the author are personal