A prolonged and deadly heatwave has hit large swaths of India and Pakistan affecting hundreds of millions of people and sparking food and energy shortages. Experts say the extreme heat is a grim preview of what the climate crisis has in store for a region home to over 1 billion people.
Temperatures in India’s capital and parts of Pakistan have at times reached close to 50°C, killing dozens of people in both countries and upending the daily lives and livelihoods of students, labourers, and farmers.
March was the hottest month on record in India since 1901. The extreme heat also came earlier in the year than normal, covered a huge landmass and persisted much longer than typical heatwaves.
The high temperatures have disproportionately affected farmers with little shelter from the heat and whose crops have wilted in the scorching sun.
“Extreme heat has major repercussions for the agricultural sector,” said Sumalee Khosla, Climate Change Adaptation Finance Expert at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Climate-related heat stress will increase drought and exacerbate water scarcity for irrigation. This impacts farming communities and potentially creates further food security issues in affected countries.”
Food insecurity is already being felt in the region. India, the world’s second-largest wheat producer, banned wheat exports to stave off shortages. This decision has reduced wheat supplies and caused a spike in prices around the world.
The prolonged heatwave exacerbated by the climate crisis has played havoc with planting and harvesting seasons. It is part of a trend that is seeing summers come earlier and the monsoon come later, said James Lomax, a Sustainable Food Systems Officer at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The late planting season has meant that wheat was still growing when the heatwave hit, resulting in yield reduction.
“Climate change will cause more stresses on the global food system,” said Lomax. “The worst thing we can do is carry on as we are. We can start by diversifying the crops we plant and opting for more resilient seed varieties.”
Scientists have long warned that human-induced climate change will bring about the kind of devastating heatwaves and impacts we are witnessing in South Asia.
Extreme heat has major repercussions for the agricultural sector. Climate related heat stress will increase drought and exacerbate water scarcity for irrigation.
Sumalee Khosla, UNEP
As a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report put it: “increased heatwaves, droughts and floods are already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds. These weather extremes are occurring simultaneously, causing cascading impacts that are increasingly difficult to manage.”
One of the major impacts of the heatwave has been a huge spike in energy for cooling. The higher demand has overloaded grids and caused widespread power outages across the country. To deal with the energy crisis, the Indian government announced in May that it would reopen more than 100 coal mines.
But experts have warned against what the UN Secretary-General Secretary-General António Guterres calls “a deadly addiction to coal.” Guetters says phasing out coal from the electricity sector is the single most important step to get in line with the 1.5-degree goal outlined in the Paris Agreement.
“A warming planet means greater demand for cooling, particularly for air-conditioning,” said Mark Radka, Chief of the Energy and Climate Branch at UNEP. “ “As demand surges, the whole energy system becomes more fragile, leading to blackouts and brownouts that force people to turn to diesel generators that add to greenhouse gas emissions and worsen the climate and air pollution crises.”
UNEP is working with national and local governments in Asia to devise creative solutions to spare people from extreme heat by leveraging the resources and know-how of local communities.
In India, where only nine per cent of households have air conditioning, UNEP, through the Cool Coalition, is working with RMI, a non-profit organization that works on global energy systems and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs to establish a national program to help cities find both large-and small-scale cooling solutions.
The project will eventually support 100 cities to undertake extreme heat planning, integrate cooling into their urban planning and lead a transition to sustainable, accessible and climate-friendly cooling, including planting more trees in cities and establishing cooling centers. UNEP’s work in India is aligned to support the implementation of the country’s National Cooling Action Plan.
The agriculture sector is not a passive player in climate change. There are proactive ways in which resilience can be built in by changing the ways we produce and consume.
James Lomax, UNEP
Temperatures in India’s capital and parts of Pakistan have at times reached close to 50°C, killing dozens of people in both countries. Photo: Maxime Gruss/Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect
UNEP is engaged in similar pilot projects in Viet Nam, where rapid urbanization and economic growth are accelerating cooling demands. UNEP is working with Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) and the Clean Cooling Collaborative, a philanthropic initiative that specializes in climate-friendly cooling policies, financing, and technology.
UNEP’s pilot project in Viet Nam is mapping extreme heat in two cities. Heat mapping is done with the use of satellite data, drones and sensor surveys to identify hotspots, their drivers and social impact.The project also identifies solutions to reduce heat to protect populations and deliver sustainable cooling, update national planning guidelines and set up a fund with Viet Nam’s Department of Climate Change to help cash-strapped municipalities in developing sustainable cooling strategies.
It is only a matter of time before the heatwave scorching South Asia also hits other parts of the world. Meteorologists are already forecasting heatwaves for France and the United Kingdom in the coming months.
More climate change-induced heatwaves in other food producing regions of the world means greater stresses on an already fragile global food system. However, as with the energy sector, the agriculture sector is not a passive player in the climate crisis.
“There are proactive ways in which resiliency can be built in by changing the ways we produce and consume food,” said Lomax. “The agriculture sector itself can transform into something that mitigates climate change.”
UNEP is at the forefront of supporting the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global temperature rise well below 2°C, and aiming for 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. To do this, UNEP has developed a Six-Sector Solution, a roadmap to reducing emissions across sectors in line with the Paris Agreement commitments and in pursuit of climate stability. The six sectors identified are: Energy; Industry; Agriculture & Food; Forests & Land Use; Transport; and Buildings & Cities.
Source: UN Environment Programme (UNEP)
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