Large parts of India risk becoming uninhabitable in future if current heat waves persist, threatening migration and climate crises that could send shock waves round the world and displace 1.3bn people.
Temperatures in the 50s over the last week in India and Pakistan, with peaks of up to 65°C, have broken records, pushing up demand for electricity and air conditioning, causing water shortages in agriculture and threatening future food supply constraints.
Coal supply problems and power plant breakdowns have caused blackouts as the country’s grid fails to meet demand.
Such an extreme climate event highlights how developing countries such as India are exposed to the effects of climate change, including high temperatures, drought and high migration levels.
Adding in the current energy crisis caused by volatile gas prices and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, India’s current heatwave serves as a warning of the need to invest far more in climate adaption and mitigation in major CO2 producing countries, such as India itself and China, to rapidly cut their emissions and invest in cleaner energy.
Record-high temperatures reaching 50°C, and up to 60°C in some areas, have not just broken 100-year-old weather records, but have also damaged crops and strained the power grid.
Temperatures in Jaipur and Ahmedabad reached 47°C, while the hottest temperatures recorded are south-east and south-west of Ahmedabad with maximum land surface temperatures of around 65°C, the European Space Agency said.
Up to 36,735 MW of coal and gas generating capacity was taken offline because of equipment breakdowns and a lack of fuel, the Central Electricity Authority said. Neighbouring Pakistan also had to take 8,500 MW offline.
Air conditioning is also pushing up power demand, causing domestic coal stockpiles to be depleted. The Hubco, Sahiwal and Port Qasim also closed, as supplies of imported coal have fallen.
Temperature is the key metric of global warming and the climate crisis in general. The IPCC’s scientific consensus is that temperature rises should be limited to 1.5°C, ideally by 2100.
However, this is in doubt, with McKinsey recently saying that global warming was set to exceed 1.7°C, above the IPCC’s target of 1.5°C.
This is in spite of current reductions in fossil fuel consumption, to be replaced by cleaner energy, and net-zero commitments from governments and corporations.
The consultant forecast that fossil fuel consumption would peak by 2030, while renewables were projected to grow threefold by 2050, accounting for 50% of power generation globally by 2030 and 80-90% by 2050.
Global oil demand is projected to peak in 2025-27, driven by the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs), while energy supply is set to move towards lower-carbon forms, with electricity, hydrogen and synfuels accordingly set to play a major role.
India’s fuel choice
India has been buying Russian fossil fuels even after the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, refusing to take part in European and US sanctions against Russia.
It imported 1.04mn tonnes in March, the highest figure since January 2020, while it could double its imports in the coming year.
Moscow, typically India's sixth-largest supplier of coking and thermal coal, could start offering more competitive prices to Chinese and Indian buyers as European and other customers spurn Russia because of sanctions.
Across Asia, high gas prices have led to a surge in coal demand, which has also pushed up coal prices.
Coal-fired generation in India rose by 11% in 2021, green think-tank Ember said in its Global Electricity Review, despite accompanying expansion of renewables.
India has also increased its imports of Russian oil, despite requests from the US that it halt imports.
India is buying Russian fuels because of lower prices. Sanctions have raised the risk of buying Russian oil, gas and coal, as Western insurance and loans are less available for Russian cargoes. This means that Indian buyers will only buy at cheaper prices, something that Russia has been willing to offer.
Coal was included in the EU’s fifth package of sanctions, announced on April, the first time that the EU had targeted Russian energy.
Since then, the sixth package of sanctions will include a proposed ban on Russian oil. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that it will not be easy, but that “we will make sure that we phase out Russian oil in an orderly fashion.”
The main principle will be “to maximise pressure on Russia while minimising the impact on our economies.”
Von der Leyen said crude oil imports would be phased out over the next six months, while refined oil products would not be fully banned until the end of 2022.
The real problem is not just global carbon emissions, but emissions by China and India.
As the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced in April, China dominates emissions trends. Energy-related emissions increased in 2020 and 2021 in China, more than offsetting the aggregate decline in the rest of the world during the same period.
In 2021 alone, China’s energy-related CO2 emissions rose above 11.9bn tonnes, accounting for 33% of the global total of 36.3bn tonnes.
Similarly, in India, CO2 emissions rebounded strongly in 2021 to rise above 2019 levels, driven by growth in coal use for electricity generation.
Globally, coal accounted for over 40% of the overall growth in global CO2 emissions in 2021. Total energy-related emissions rose by 6% to 36.3bn tonnes in 2021, with coal contributing 15.3bn tonnes, a record.
Coal-fired generation reached an all-time high in India, jumping 13% above its 2020 level, meaning that CO2 emissions rebounded strongly in 2021 to rise above 2019 levels. This was partly because the growth of renewables slowed to one-third of the average rate seen over the previous five years.
The IEA said that CO2 emissions had rebounded less sharply in advanced economies in 2021 than in the developing world, even though global economic output in advanced economies recovered to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, but signalled a more permanent trajectory of structural decline.
In other words, if China and India are removed from the equation, then global emissions actually are falling, meaning that there has been significant progress towards net zero in recent years.
However, if China is included, then any gains in recent years are cancelled, with, for example, new Chinese coal generation actually outpacing coal closures in the rest of the word.
India, which at the COP26 conference made a dramatic last-minute intervention to have coal phase out changed to coal phase down in the conference’s final declarations, also has to make its own efforts to accelerate emissions reduction.
India said at COP26 that it would achieve carbon neutrality by 2070, although it refused to set a date for peak emissions. It did say it would build 500 GW of non-fossil capacity by 2030 and that renewables would account for 50% of energy by 2030.
If more climate events like the current heatwave are to be avoided, then it is India itself, along with the other emissions giant, China, that must make effective and sudden changes if the two countries are to keep pace with global dynamics.
India has also been a leading critic of the West’s historic record on emissions, saying that European and US industrialisation has caused the current crisis, rather than current emissions from the developing world.
Prime Narendra Modi has urged the developed world to provide $1 trillion of climate finance to the world’s poorer nations in a bid to achieve climate justice, calling on rich countries to provide the finance needed to the energy transition in the global south.
India has long argued that nations that industrialised earlier should bear a much greater share of the burden of decarbonisation, as they have contributed far more to emissions over time. This contrasts with OECD members’ failure so far to provide $100bn per year of climate financing, as already promised.
The wider picture is that emissions in Asia are driving climate change, and that emissions reduction worldwide in too slow, but more crucially, not in the right places. China and India, the world’s largest and third-largest emitters, need to reduce emissions.
Also, more investment is needed in climate adaption, which means investing in dealing with the current effects of climate change, such as drought, deforestation and high temperatures.
At COP26, the developed world promised to keep annual climate financing up to $100bn per year. But more is needed in Africa and Asia.
Global warming since the pre-industrial era now stood at 1.1°C, said the IPPC, and that 3.3bn people were now at risk to changes in the climate.
The current heatwaves in India, with 1.4bn people, is a key example of this. The report said that more land will become uninhabitable because of rising, heating and acidifying seas, salty soils and higher air temperatures, which will punish small islands in particular.
Among other dangers, staple crop production will become impossible in places such as the tropics, threatening the world’s food security. There could be many “multiple breadbasket failures” if global warming goes past 1.5°C.
This means that global warming could cause mass famine and movements of people, leading to political destabilisation and potentially war in Asia and Africa, as countries could close their border to mass movements of millions of people from famine-hit areas.
These threats mean that current green investment is being made in the wrong place. According to the IPCC, the two most crucial ways of combating climate change are adaptation, which involves reducing climate risk, and mitigation, which is reducing emissions.
It warned that far more investment in adaptation measures was needed, with 80% of climate financing now focused on mitigation.
“Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”
India’s current temperature and possible migration acts as a bellwether of how emissions reductions efforts, the current Russian fossil fuel embargo and global investment in emissions reduction and adaption are all interconnected.
More and wiser investment in adaption, emissions reduction and renewable energy is needed urgently to prevent a migration catastrophe of the kind threatened in India.