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Climate change can adversely impact India’s living standards

These climate effects are likely to be less damaging if countries meet their commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. Given the uncertainty about the path that countries will take, it needs to be remembered that decisions taken today will not only make a difference to the quality of life of this generation, but will leave an indelible mark on generations to come.

analysis Updated: Aug 11, 2018 17:50 IST
On the whole, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh - which already have higher rates of poverty and large tribal populations - are likely to face the greatest declines in living standards, with drops of more than 9 percent. They are followed by Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra.(Rajanish Kakade/AP)

Over the past decades, India has improved living standards and enabled millions to rise out of poverty. Yet, climate change can emerge as a slow-moving disaster, with profound implications for society and the country’s march to progress.

Already, temperatures have risen considerably, and rainfall patterns are becoming less predictable. As expected, changes in precipitation have begun to alter the growing seasons, affecting agriculture.

What impact will these changes have on living standards across the country, who will be the most impacted, and what can be done to build resilience?

Most climate change studies focus on sudden disruptions caused by extreme weather events such as storms and droughts. Less understood are the economic implications of the long-term changes in weather patterns that are unfolding.

Our recent research looks at these gradual changes and finds that if nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, around 600 million Indians could be adversely impacted.

While India may lose 2.8 percent of GDP on average, some parts of the country can see a GDP loss of over 10 percent.

Today, almost half of India’s population lives in areas that are projected to become moderate to severe hotspots by 2050, where the impact of climate change is likely to be the greatest.

Although coastal areas receive much of the attention, we find that many of these “climate hotspots” turn out to be in inland areas - in central and northern India.

Seven of the ten most affected districts are in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, which has been attracting a lot of attention because of a spate of farmer suicides. The remaining three are in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

On the whole, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh - which already have higher rates of poverty and large tribal populations - are likely to face the greatest declines in living standards, with drops of more than 9 percent. They are followed by Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra.

What makes the impact more severe in these regions is their greater reliance on weather-dependent agriculture and their general underdevelopment. Take for example, Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu, just 100 kilometers away from Jaffna in Sri Lanka. Although both districts have relatively similar weather, Ramanathapuram does not emerge as a climate hotspot whereas Jaffna does, because of its greater reliance on agriculture and the differences in other development indicators.

Nonetheless, much can be done to promote resilience. Increasing educational attainment, reducing water stress, and expanding the non-farm sector, with special focus on the most vulnerable communities, are a few key actions that can reduce the impact of climate change.

Although no single set of interventions will work in all hotspots, communities can be helped to adapt by developing drought-resistant crops, providing timely weather forecasts and climate risk assessments, promoting weather insurance, and facilitating greater market access for farm products.

In addition, the efficient use of energy, water, and other natural resources will need to be encouraged. Moreover, incentives will need to be provided for research and development in both existing and new technologies in the energy, water, agricultural, forestry, and livestock sectors.

In future, economic growth and structural changes to the economy will cause people to migrate to cities, leaving behind farms and fields that are sensitive to climate change. Although migration to towns and cities could help more of the rural population to evade the ravages of climate change, it will, in turn, lead to new climate impacts. For instance, urban populations will face a growing number of health risks, exacerbated by heat waves and flooding.

These climate effects are likely to be less damaging if countries meet their commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. Given the uncertainty about the path that countries will take, it needs to be remembered that decisions taken today will not only make a difference to the quality of life of this generation, but will leave an indelible mark on generations to come.

Muthukumara Mani is a lead economist at the World Bank and lead author of recent World Bank publication, ‘South Asia’s Hotspots: The Impact of Temperature and Precipitation on Living Standards.’

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 11, 2018 17:14 IST