A robust plan to tackle heightened heat stress
Heat stress in India is no longer a surprise, which is why it demands an all-hands-on-deck response
India witnessed the warmest March this year since 1901, and the highest rainfall deficit that month since 1909. In May, the European Space Agency recorded land surface temperatures nearing 55°C over many parts of northwest India, crossing 60°C in some pockets. According to a report by Lancet, India’s vulnerability to extreme heat increased 15% from 1990 to 2019. The five warmest years ever recorded in India have all been in the last decade. Heat stress should no longer come as a surprise. It demands a comprehensive response.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported last year that, globally, hot temperature extremes over land, which occurred once in a decade, are already 2.8 times more likely to occur. These patterns will likely increase 4.1 times if temperatures rose to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, 5.6 times in a 2°C scenario, and 9.4 times in a +4°C world. In a country with a large job-seeking population, heat stress can severely compromise employment prospects and productivity. The International Labour Organization projects that by 2030, India could lose around 34 million full-time jobs due to heat stress. The correlation between heat waves and increasing mortality would further strain public health infrastructure. Global evidence on occupational heat stress suggests that while the global costs from lost work time amounted to ~0.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2010, it could rise to $2.4–2.5 trillion in 2030 (more than 1% of GDP) and up to 4% of GDP by 2100. For heat-vulnerable countries such as India, these projections are troubling.
Agriculture and allied sectors are particularly at risk. Occupational heat stress limits working hours for farm labour, reducing output and lowering incomes. Moreover, crop yields suffer when temperatures exceed the ideal range for growth. Farmers in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh have reported losses in their wheat crop in the past rabi season. Across India, wheat production could be down 6-7%. Other crops, such as groundnut, sesame, sugarcane, and paddy, which have higher water requirements, may also be threatened. Livestock is also vulnerable to heatwaves. Researchers at Cornell University estimate that, by 2100, milk yields in India could drop by 25% (against 2005 levels) in arid and semi-arid dairy farming due to increased heat stress.
Consequently, cooling demand across sectors — room, commercial and vehicular air-conditioning, cold chain for agricultural produce, refrigeration for medicines and vaccines, among others — is expected to grow eight-fold between 2017-18 and 2037-38. Demand for refrigerants will grow 5-8 times and primary energy supply for cooling 4.5 times during the same period.
While the power supply to meet this demand must become cleaner, energy efficiency should be top priority. CEEW researchers have estimated that lower floorspace, higher air-conditioner efficiency, and improved building design could reduce electricity consumption by 15% in 2030 and 32% in 2050, against the baseline.
Naturally, heatwaves will impact power load. Electricity demand in India between March 1 and May 17, 2022 was 334.4 Terawatt hours (TWh), 14% higher than the same period in 2021 and 18% higher than 2019. Twice in April (26th and 29th), the all-time national peak demand record was broken (201.1 gigawatts (GW) and 207.1 GW, respectively). Again, on June 8, 9 and 10, the record was broken thrice – reaching a peak demand of 211.9 GW. The afternoon peak indicates higher cooling demand during the hottest time of day. In the north, the average daily peak demand in April was 13% higher than 2021 and 30% higher in May.
Sustainable cooling must be considered an essential infrastructure activity. Without it, labour productivity, farm productivity, industrial productivity, and public health are all affected. How should India prepare?
First, granular climate risk assessments are a must. Just as we forecast heavy rainfall or cyclones, anticipating heat waves could provide advance warnings to public health facilities and power system operators.
Second, a shift to more climate-resilient crops must extend beyond pockets of experimentation. A dynamic understanding of risks is needed to evaluate whether the crops we have relied on so far will also be the ones to provide food and nutrition security in future. Thirdly, provisions will have to be made for insurance against crop loss. The rising fiscal burden of compensating farmers could also serve as a trigger for a rethink about crop choices.
Finally, focusing on the most vulnerable in a rapidly urbanising India should be the guiding mantra. Data from the 76th round of the National Sample Survey reveals that less than half (41%) of Indian households reported their homes to be well ventilated. Passive cooling techniques must be incorporated into building design, especially for social housing programmes. The huge resources expended on new housing will be wasted if dwellings were unliveable. CEEW researchers find that only 23.6% of Indian homes own appliances such as coolers or air-conditioners. If fans account for most cooling needs, the cost of efficient fans must fall. Aggregating demand (as was done for LED light bulbs) in partnership with energy service companies, and credit facilities under housing schemes to purchase energy-efficient appliances should be considered.
The monsoon has arrived in many parts of India, though its coverage remains patchy and concentrated spatially and temporally. Moreover, humidity, scant rain, and high temperatures have pushed up discomfort levels, making the lives of those without cooling facilities even tougher. 2022, therefore, forewarns us about more difficult times ahead. We must prepare for worse.
Arunabha Ghosh is CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water and member of the UN secretary-general’s high-level expert group on net-zero emissions commitments of non-State entities
The views expressed are personal