Glimpses 2019: On climate action, India progressed while US and China faltered

Facing the brunt of extreme weather, India worked towards its climate goals in 2019

heat-wave-sun-high-temerature-climate-change-weather-shut Representational image | Shutterstock

"You've stolen my childhood and my dreams with your empty words,'' said teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in New York. For years, activists had been warning that we are not leaving the earth fit enough to be inherited by our children. Those children finally spoke aloud through Greta's voice.

Proof, if any was required, came in August with the death of Okjokull, the first glacier in Iceland’s recorded history to be lost to climate change.

The year gone by has not brought good news on global efforts towards climate change mitigation. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released an emissions gap report which showed that the goal of keeping global temperatures from rising above the 1.5°C mark, as per the Paris Agreement, was slipping out of reach. Even if the countries lived up to their Individual Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), emissions in 2030 will be 38 per cent higher than what is required to meet the target. Another report by the Global Carbon Project showed that emissions from fossil fuels are expected to continue rising in 2020.

Yet, the slow progress made at the Conference of Parties 25 (COP25) meeting at Madrid in December was proof that just as climate urgency was increasing, the lethargy in action was worsening. The meeting was aimed at finalising the rulebook of the Paris Agreement, which is to kick into action from 2020, by setting down the rules of international cooperation and other aspects of mitigation. However, despite this being the longest meeting on record, key decisions on carbon markets were left pending. There is hope now that they will be resolved at the next inter-sessional meeting in June, before the COP 26 summit in Glasgow.

It was a year of mixed blessings for India. The country, for the first time ever, made it to the top ten best performers in the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI). India at the ninth position fared far better than China with the 30th rank and the US at the bottom of the list. While this is something to crow about, environmental think tank Germanwatch has also placed India as among the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

In actual experience, India witnessed one of its hottest summers in recent years. On June 1, Rajasthan's Churu was the hottest place in the world, as temperatures there reached 50.3°C. Delhi recorded a scorcher of a day at 48°C, its highest-ever temperature in June, and even Mumbai touched 40°C.

Water-stressed Chennai went dry, with all its groundwater sources disappearing. The monsoon was a maverick; arriving late only to pour out much more rain than expected. At 110 per cent of the Long Period Average, 2019 was one of the wettest years on record. The retreat of the rains began uncharacteristically late. The monsoon usually starts to withdraw from September 1 and is gone by October 1; this time, the withdrawal itself began by October 10.

Whether these extreme weather events are indicators of climate change or not, they certainly put climate stress on the nation's resources. With over 2,000 deaths due to climate events, India had among the highest climate casualties globally.

The country got accolades for its ambitious climate mitigation plans—generating 83 GW of power from renewable energy resources with a target of 175 GW by 2022. In term of optics, however, the scene was not very good, with another black November as a noxious smog swept over the northern plains. Cities declared health emergencies, schools shut down, and the Supreme Court compared the situation to a gas chamber.

The present may not seem great in India. But the efforts being put in place hold promise. India is one of the first countries in the world to have a comprehensive Cooling Action Plan to address the air conditioning needs of people and products with as little impact on the environment as possible.

India is also leading in the global initiative to stop desertification, having hosted the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in September. As its commitment, India is setting up a centre of excellence to combat desertification in Dehradun. Last year, India recorded a commendable one per cent increase in green cover. And, recently, environment minister Prakash Javadekar said that the overall area under tree-cover is likely to show a further increase in the next report of the forestry department.

The question, however, is whether these initiatives will be enough when the world as a whole is sliding rapidly towards missing the 1.5°C target—and the prospect of even greater bouts of unpredictable weather.