Need to be more vigilant

Controlling Heat Intensity

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

The heat wave has started and, as per predictions of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) this year would witness more heat in certain regions of the country, including the eastern and the northwestern parts. As per its monthly outlook, above normal heatwave days are expected over most parts of Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Gangetic West Bengal, east Uttar Pradesh, coastal Andhra Pradesh and some parts of north Chhattisgarh, Telangana and coastal Gujarat during May. Plus, below normal rainfall is likely in most parts of northeast India, many parts of east-central India and south peninsular India with these regions likely to be not just drier but also facing heat wave days.

As it is the maximum temperatures are around or over 400 C though the real feel has been measured 3-4 degrees above the recorded temperature. Undeniably, heatwaves have increased since the past decade of the past century. The worrying part is that temperature and humidity levels being high, results in real feel temperature being about 3-4 degrees higher. The hot extremes are destined to continue, more so in the tropical regions of the world.

In India, around a billion people in the Indo-Gangetic Plain are impacted. Not just here but in other parts too, huge numbers of people work outdoors doing manual labour in agriculture, construction, forestry, fisheries, mining, brick factories, collecting firewood etc. Estimates by Duke University researchers found that of all the labour lost to heat exposure around the world, almost half are in India.

The obvious answer lies in reducing carbon emissions to counter heat waves. While renewable sources of energy are the best option, there must be a strategic change towards energy-efficient appliances, green buildings, electric vehicles and the like. Though these technologies are picking up, their growth is rather slow, at least in India. Moreover, the extensive use of glass in modern buildings is not considered energy efficient.

Experts opine that if we can decarbonise the global electricity supply by 2050, there’s a possibility of limiting warming by 20 C. It is thus imperative to move towards this strategy and ultimately move towards a net zero economy in near future. This, however, is easier said than accomplished. Not just in India, but a very recent global report by Copernicus Climate Change Service found that the earth had its second warmest March on record with Antarctica sea ice shrinking to its second lowest extent.

Indeed, the benefits of a net zero economy are immense for a country like India. It should go a long way in achieving energy independence, improve air quality in cities, and can boost manufacturers’ productivity by using fewer resources. Most important is the transport sector where clean energy and smarter grids and analytics and harnessing the complexity of a decentralised system could lead to minimum waste and maximum efficiency.

Meanwhile, some reports reveal that India has taken major strides towards generating 500 GW of renewable energy capacity, thereby reducing the emissions intensity of its economy by over 40% and removing one billion tonnes of CO2. Though the emission intensity of the economy has no doubt been controlled, it is a fact that renewable power in the country costs twice as much as the best rates abroad, though India has advantages like low construction costs and ample sunshine. Winning bids for renewable projects were once as low as Rs 1.99 per unit but have gone up to around Rs 2.50/unit presently due to heavy import duties. Projects in Saudi Arabia in 2020 were won for just 1.04 cents (Rs 0.83) per unit while Portugal attracted dollar bids equal to Rs 1.07, Abu Dhabi Rs 1.10, Qatar Rs 1.29 and even the US at Rs 1.23.

Similarly for green hydrogen, needed to replace carbon-intensive industries like steel and cement, the costs are quite high. Reliance Chairman Mukesh Ambani stated that he would reduce the cost of green hydrogen from $3.5/kg to $1/kg. But that requires cheap solar electricity, the main input for green hydrogen. Only time will tell whether renewable projects would become cheaper and whether India would have the competitive edge.

The Energy Conservation (Amendment) Bill 2022, recently passed by Parliament, provides the legal framework for incentivising actions for emission reduction and increased investments in clean energy. But monitoring carbon emissions remains a problem. There is need for an institutional framework for carbon’ markets monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) system like the European Union MRV, which leaves no room for manipulation and inaccuracy. Moreover, a standard organisation like Institute of Chartered Accountants or the National Financial Reporting Authority or some other self-regulating agency could be given this responsibility.

As per the recent Mapping India’s Energy Policy 2022 report, “renewable energy subsidies in India have fallen by 59% to Rs 6767 crore after Rs 16,312 crore in FY 2017”. Perhaps more support from the government in form of subsidies to targeted groups will be needed to scale up solar manufacturing, green hydrogen to explore renewable energy technologies & bring down the unit cost.

While we hear a lot of the government’s efforts to push renewable energy sources, there are other issues involved in controlling heat intensity. Recently MoS Ashwini Kumar Choubey informed Parliament that India during the last five years (from April 2018 to March 2023) diverted around 89,000 hectares of forest land – an area more than Mumbai and Kolkata, — for non-forestry purpose with the highest of over 19,424 hectares being for road construction followed by 18,847 hectares for mining and 13,344 hectares for irrigation projects. He said it has been done in the name of development. However, a study published in Nature indicated that the carbon sequestration potential of natural forests is the maximum and around 40 times greater as compared to plantations.

The other dimensions of global warming can’s be ignored as the recently published Synthesis Report pointed out that at current levels of warming – even after various nations have taken and announced strategic action – food production is starting to come under strain while pollution levels are on the rise. The world is still producing more food each year, thanks to improvements in farming technologies, but climate change has slowed the rate of growth. Undoubtedly, in populous countries like India, food security is at risk as the growth of population is on the rise.

In this situation, controlling pollution remains more than a serious problem. Though the Union environment minister recently claimed that India has achieved close to 27% of the area under conservation with its protective area network that includes reserved forests, national parks, wildlife, sanctuaries, mangroves, Ramsar sites and eco-sensitive zones, the path to sustainability is a long way to go.

However, reports point out that forests are indiscriminately felled for so-called development purposes with no programme of massive afforestation. Balancing heat intensity and countering global warming remains a big challenge, not just for India but many other tropical countries in the Third World.

Research and innovation need to be explored for more efficient transport and energy policies with an eye on curbing environmental degradation. Though the expertise is available, this is not being utilised so as not to disturb the cozy relationship between politicians and industrialists. But considering the serious consequences of warming, India must be more vigilant. Thus, the Mission LIFE movement, launched by Prime Minister Modi in October last year, aiming towards environmentally conscious lifestyle, should not be just jargon. It would be keenly watched how soon it becomes a reality if we are serious about achieving the sustainable path of growth. — INFA