Why climate action in India must go local

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On 13 March, Mumbai became the first South Asian city to announce a plan to mitigate and adapt to the risks of climate change. The strategy hinges on the goal to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, two decades before the national target. In setting this aim, Mumbai has become an example for all cities and towns serious about their futures: fix local targets to reach carbon-neutrality in time.

But net zero is a numerical goal far into the future. In real time, the goal requires action, mitigation, and adaptation to fight the already-occurring climate changes, as suggested by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its February report. Mumbai’s plan aligns well with that need: it envisages better and more efficient city infrastructure to deal with such effects. Can other local governments, too, follow suit as they look for water security, clean air, and safe livelihoods?

India is only a handful of countries still in the early stage of building an adaption plan

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India is only a handful of countries still in the early stage of building an adaption plan

Evidence is mounting that India is highly vulnerable to a slew of extreme hazards, which have already cost the country over $90 billion, UN estimates show. Yet, India is one of a handful of countries still laying the groundwork for an adaptation plan, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“With floods and cyclones, we have already lost billions and billions of dollars,” said Abinash Mohanty, programme lead in the risks and adaptation team at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water. “What we haven’t been able to do as a country is saving our livelihoods, infrastructure and economic sectors. This is where hyper-local actions could benefit.”

Depleting essentials

Water scarcity is one climate-linked problem that can have local solutions. In 2019, a severe water crisis had hit Chennai, and cities such as Bengaluru border on the dreaded “Day Zero” scenario. Climate change has been blamed for such episodes as it makes rains unpredictable and also leads to longer droughts and floods, sapping away clean groundwater.

Most Indians rely on groundwater for both drinking and irrigation, but the table is going down. The Comptroller and Auditor General has found that the stage of groundwater extraction rose from 58% to 63% between 2004 and 2017, and one in three districts have “extremely low” or “low” groundwater availability.

Some cities and towns are acting. Last year, water-scarce Burhanpur became Madhya Pradesh’s first district to have near-universal tap water supply by resurrecting a Mughal-era traditional water structure. Bengaluru citizens have also shown eagerness to establish rainwater harvesting systems to tackle the sinking groundwater table.

Heat stress

Extreme heat events harm people and ecosystems everywhere—and they are becoming more frequent and intense. Local action can help here, too, as some cities in Gujarat have shown by setting up early warning systems.

A useful metric to assess this aspect of climate is the heat index, which factors in both temperature and humidity. At above 35°C, it poses significant health hazards and reduces productivity. This can lead up to “2% of industrial revenue loss” for businesses, Mohanty said.

A new Duke University study shows India loses around 259 billion hours of labour annually due to the heat-humidity combine. Summers in the country are expected to only rise up the heat index even under the IPCC’s most optimistic climate scenario.

Adaptability will be critical in the coming years. Proactive forecasting systems and early warning are ways to deal with this as in Surat’s case, said Nambi Appadurai, director of Climate Resilience Practice at World Resources Institute, India.

Sinking cities

Coastal metropolises such as Mumbai are at the frontline of the struggle. Several studies, including the latest IPCC report, predict 2-3 feet of sea-level rise along India’s coast by the end of the century, making low-lying populations particularly vulnerable. This could cost Mumbai alone $162 billion per year by 2050, the IPCC estimates.

Several countries have come up with solutions such as building seawalls, but India may need other ways that are cognizant of the high share of population dependent on fishing. “Many lives and livelihoods are intricately linked, [so] cultural aspects also come into play,” Appadurai said.

Nature-based solutions such as mangrove conservation can combat coastal flooding and erosion to a large extent. Mohanty cited an example of 10 self-help groups coming together to restore a forest in Puri, Odisha, reducing the impact of cyclones.

Climate proofing and community resilience are receiving increased attention as the threat of climate change gets clearer. More local governments need to take on the challenge urgently.

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