Feb 05, 2013 05:09 PM IST | Source:

India could be burnt by global warming

Anyone sceptical about the effects of global warming should listen to those who work in the Himalayas. Asia's great mountain range is already affected by climate change and scientists say it will experience yet more dramatic impacts in the future - with possibly grave consequences.

Anyone sceptical about the effects of global warming should listen to those who work in the Himalayas. Asia's great mountain range is already affected by climate change and scientists say it will experience yet more dramatic impacts in the future - with possibly grave consequences.

"Throughout our field trips, we've seen that strange things have started to happen," Rajarshi Chakraborty, a biologist working for WWF, the conservation charity, told a literary mountain festival near Mussoorie in northern India late last November.

After enthusing about the discovery of more than 350 species of plants and animals in the eastern Himalayas in the two decades up to 2008, Mr Chakraborty expressed dismay about the retreat of glaciers and surprise that rhododendrons had begun flowering in February instead of April.

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He is not alone. Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu, an Indian mountaineer who has scaled Mount Everest four times, says apple harvests at his home in the highlands of Uttarakhand have been diminished by the decrease in cold weather and snowfall in winter and by extreme weather at other times of the year.

"The temperature has definitely increased. I've seen the glaciers recede very fast," he says. "The flow of streams and waterfalls has really gone down. A long time ago, people used to fish, but now they [the rivers] are all dried up."

Indians - because they are so numerous and because climate change is predicted to be particularly drastic in the heavily populated regions of north and central India to the south of the Himalayas - are likely to be among the worst affected victims of global climate change.

According to a report published recently by senior UK and Indian government scientists, temperatures in India will rise sharply within decades, just as the country overtakes China to become the world's most populous nation. Monsoon rains, furthermore, are expected to become more intense and more variable.

The scientists' conclusions show that average temperatures in north India are projected to rise by 2.9-5C by about 2080 - an extraordinary change in one lifetime - if greenhouse gases continue to be emitted globally in large quantities.

"This is not a problem that exists in the future conditional tense. It exists in the present tense," Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, said on a recent visit to India. Mr Talbott, an official in the administration of Bill Clinton, former US president, went on to identify climate change as a critical security issue.

Rajat Nag, managing director-general of the Asian Development Bank, says environmental problems - including climate change - should not be ignored while developed and developing countries argue about who is to blame and who should act first.

"Over the past four decades, Asia has lost 40 per cent of its coral reefs, China has lost 70 per cent of its mangroves in the past 50 years, and south-east Asia has lost 13 per cent of its forest areas in the past 20 years," says Mr Nag, who comes from New Delhi.

"We think that we are actually seeing the effects of climate change in the number of cyclones, floods and earthquakes. Asia has been vulnerable to many natural disasters. What we are saying is that a large part of this is surely to do with climate change, though not all."

With India's population set to rise from more than 1.2bn today to a peak of 1.7bn in 2060, and with the economy expected to grow for decades to come and join the ranks of the planet's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, the country will be not only a victim of climate change, but also a prime cause of it.

Indian governments, like those of China, have nevertheless been reluctant to lead efforts to reverse or slow the process of global warming, arguing that the western industrialised nations responsible for most of the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide should do more and should move first.

There is probably not much that any government can usefully do today to limit the number of India's inhabitants, given that birth rates are already declining sharply in many states and cities and that most of the projected rise in population is inevitable because of demographic "momentum".

A fast-growing population takes decades to reach a peak and start declining even when birth rates have been successfully reduced, because an increase in the total existing population means more children in the future - even if each couple has fewer children than in previous generations.

Where India could contribute - although it shows little sign of wanting to do so - is in championing a more sustainable and energy-efficient way to industrialise and modernise at the start of what is likely to be a long climb from poverty to prosperity.

"The impacts on India are certainly going to be quite serious," says Rajendra Pachauri, director-general of The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) in New Delhi and chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He argues that India needs to "energise the machinery" to tackle climate change - if only because Indian megacities such as Calcutta, Mumbai and Delhi, as well as food-producing rural areas, will be particularly vulnerable to the climate-linked problems of rising sea levels and shortages of fresh water.

"There are very strong domestic and national compulsions for us to pursue a path that is more resource efficient than has been followed by the developed countries," he says. "The challenge is gigantic."

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