Heat is on, be ready for the consequences - Hindustan Times
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Heat is on, be ready for the consequences

Apr 16, 2024 10:00 PM IST

A warming world demands holistic solutions that span robust heat action strategies, climate-resilient agriculture, urban planning, and economic foresight

As the sun climbs higher in the Indian sky, so does concern over rising temperatures and the impact of heatwaves. Recent forecasts from the India Meteorological Department (IMD) warn of above-normal temperatures in April, May, and June, and heatwaves lasting as long as 10-20 days in some parts, compared to a normal of 4-8 days. Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Telangana have already seen searing temperatures. And if 2023 was anything to go by, we are looking at a hot year again. As we now know from the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) recent State of the Global Climate report, 2023 broke all records — for being the hottest year, for the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and for ocean heat content. We can point to El Niño cycles and be alarmed by headline numbers, but heatwaves don’t merely register as uncomfortable spikes on the thermometer; they reverberate through every facet of public health and the economy.

Mumbai, India - March 20, 2024: A boy Jumping in the afternoon heat as temperature soars at Dadar chowpatty in Mumbai, India, on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (Photo by Satish Bate/ Hindustan Times)(Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Mumbai, India - March 20, 2024: A boy Jumping in the afternoon heat as temperature soars at Dadar chowpatty in Mumbai, India, on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (Photo by Satish Bate/ Hindustan Times)(Hindustan Times)

Against this, the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) decision to maintain the repo rate at 6.5% for the seventh consecutive time shows its recognition of the macroeconomic impacts of the climate crisis. Agriculture, which sustains a significant portion of the population, stands particularly vulnerable. Prolonged heat spells can disrupt crop cycles, reduce yields, and imperil food security — adding to food inflation and affecting rural consumer demand. For instance, early and prolonged heatwaves in 2022 reportedly led to a 10% to 35% reduction in crop yields in Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. The urban landscape faces a different set of hurdles. Rising temperatures strain energy grids as demand for cooling escalates. The health sector braces for heat-related illnesses and businesses contend with reduced worker efficiency and higher operational costs. The International Labour Organization projects a productivity loss equivalent to 34 million full-time jobs in India due to heat stress by 2030.

The interplay of climate and finance adds a layer of complexity to this. As temperatures soar, banks face heightened risks associated with agricultural lending and business continuity. The fiscal health of institutions and their ability to weather climatic shocks will play a pivotal role in determining India’s economic resilience. And it’s not just the heat, the monsoon impacts price volatility and inflation rates too. A recent study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) shows that while 11% of Indian tehsils (subdivisions) have seen a decrease in southwest monsoon rainfall in the last decade compared to the previous three, they are located in the agriculturally vital Indo-Gangetic plain.

What India does to tackle extreme weather will have lessons for other emerging economies facing increased climate vulnerability. A warming world demands solutions that span heat action strategies, urban planning, economic foresight and climate-resilient agriculture.

First, make Heat Action Plans (HAPs) more robust. India’s first generation of HAPs — made at the city, district and state levels — have shown results and helped reduce public health risks. As of 2023, nearly 23 states and 130-plus cities in India have developed their HAPs. In February, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) organised a first-of-its-kind national workshop to assess heatwave preparedness. Similarly, NDMA and IMD have been conducting monthly meetings with states to assess HAP implementation. However, these HAPs currently focus more on response than preparedness. Many lack granular vulnerability assessments, crucial for identifying at-risk populations before heatwaves occur. Further, not just temperatures, the second generation of HAPs need to account for other variables such as humidity. For example, Thane’s first HAP, created by the city’s municipal corporation in collaboration with CEEW, adopts a “when, where, who and how” framework for heat action strategies. It considers “felt heat” (temperature plus humidity), which can actually be 3-4°C higher than dry heat, warm nights, and socioeconomic factors at a ward level.

Second, enhancing climate resilience in agriculture is paramount. The climate crisis will result in significant economic losses for Indian agriculture — production losses in rice, wheat and maize could reach $208 billion in 2050 (in 2010 US dollar prices). So, promoting drought-resistant crops, expanding sustainable irrigation facilities, and fostering climate-smart farming practices that involve communities are important. Agricultural insurance mechanisms must be bolstered to safeguard farmers against climate-induced losses or can be nudged towards hardier crops. Public awareness campaigns delivered in vernacular languages can help farmers be better prepared.

Third, urban planning must pivot towards climate-sensitive infrastructure. Investments in green spaces, sustainable cooling systems, and resilient urban design can reduce the impacts of heat waves and enhance livability in cities. For instance, not everyone can afford an air conditioner. Here district cooling and super-efficient fans can help. The annual market for super-efficient fans in India was $1.64 billion in 2022 alone — and could be as large as $20 billion. Further, district cooling helps cool down buildings without everyone having to buy air conditioners.

Finally, financial institutions must integrate climate risk assessments into their lending practices. RBI’s oversight can catalyse this shift by incentivising banks to adopt sustainable financing principles and promote investments in climate-resilient projects. Earlier this year, RBI presented draft guidelines on the Disclosure Framework on Climate-related Financial Risks 2024 (currently open for comments). These disclosures could help stakeholders — from customers to investors — assess market risks and opportunities.

Extreme weather is a collective vulnerability. India — a continent-sized country — needs granular data for informed decisions, dynamic heat indices and locally salient interventions. If nine of the last 10 years have been the hottest on record and extreme weather events have led to 5.60 lakh crore in damages in recent decades, then climate action must move from the margins of our consciousness to the mainstream of India’s economic discourse. Starting this summer.

Arunabha Ghosh is the CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). The views expressed are personal

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