As the world gets ready for the 21st conference of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to be held next year in Paris to develop a climate accord to replace the Kyoto Protocol, climate diplomacy is in full swing at global and multi-lateral levels.

Indigenous people from Brazil demanding climate justice at COP20 in Lima (Image by Carlos Garcia Granthon)

Indigenous people from Brazil demanding climate justice at COP20 in Lima (Image by Carlos Garcia Granthon)

The US and China made big news recently by announcing their own plans to cut emissions. This is exerting some pressure on India, the third highest greenhouse gas emitter, to make its own news. Several expert opinions are being expressed within and without India about what India needs to do.

Valid issues are being raised on India’s vulnerability to climate change and the economic motivations for increased decarbonizing of the country’s growth plans and the role of individuals in reducing their carbon footprint.

India however needs a solution-based narrative before getting irreversibly trapped in the carbon-based narrative of what are called the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) countries. These countries have been responsible for most of the accumulated carbon since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and have not shown consistent leadership in ratifying or implementing the Kyoto Protocol.

Nonetheless, India cannot afford to play the victim considering that its own pollution levels can begin to hurt its ambition to become the hub of global investment in service and manufacturing industries. China
learned the lesson the hard way and India should heed the lesson.

Much more important, most of the expert opinions in the country tend to miss the excellent climate science being produced by its own institutions. Faculty from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore reported on the increasing extreme events while faculty from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay demonstrated that the spatial variability of rainfall has been increasing. New studies led by the students at Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) Pune and IIT Bombay have shown that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models used to make climate projections have failed to reproduce the downward trend in the Indian summer monsoon and thus their monsoon projections for the future are essentially unreliable. For a country whose lifeline is the monsoon and consequent agricultural production and employment, monsoon predictions and projections are more critical than any concerns about carbon footprint in future decades.

The investment made in the National Monsoon Mission has produced a very dynamic community of forecasters and researchers within India and across many countries thanks to the unique and innovative funding opportunities created by the mission. Impressive results are being produced, especially, in extended range forecasts for longer than a week which are crucial for farmers and their crop calendars. The cautionary tale has been the failed El Niño forecasts during 2012 and 2014. El Niño is the poster-child for a predictable climate signal but the monsoon evolution was erratic during both these years. The emergence of the global warming signal in the Indian and Pacific Oceans has been reported by the IITM-Pune scientists. It remains unclear how the monsoon-El Niño dance is being affected by global warming.

All these portend mostly bad news for a country like India, underscoring the need for a solution-based strategy for negotiations at the Paris summit, focusing on our own needs for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The intimate interplay between water, food, energy, and health in our unique and vulnerable region must drive our stand on the global stage. Carbon-based fossil fuels led to impressive improvements in standards of living across the globe albeit unevenly. But the unintended side-effect was global warming. The future need not be all about decarbonizing and can instead be about sustainable, equitable, and inclusive development with an intended side-effect of reducing carbon footprints.

It is known that the last ice age had also reduced the strength of the summer monsoon. It is an irony if global warming also delivers a weaker monsoon. But this can serve as an impetus to invest heavily in sustainable watershed management and food production by large-scale adoption of approaches such as agroforestry.  Agroforestry is a Clean Development Mechanism since it can sequester additional carbon in the soil. It also reduces the need for reliance on large reservoirs and dams by encouraging local solutions and thus alleviate the issue of access, quantity and quality of water. This will naturally reduce many of the health issues that plague the country, especially the children and also reduce drudgery of women.

In the meantime, India can ramp up efforts on desalinization, considering that its extensive coastline offers a natural access to the abundant seas. The impacts of the vagaries of the monsoon will certainly be mitigated by the hydrological forecasting efforts within the country that are beginning to gain momentum at IISc, IITs and other institutions.

Water, food and energy securities cannot be separated in a country that relies so extensively on rainfall. While renewable energy sources like wind and solar are rapidly expanding, there is a need to create reliable regional projections for winds. Investing heavily in wind farms where winds may die down in the coming years and decades may prove to be costly.

The lessons of the Fukushima disaster and the resulting shift in the calculus about nuclear energy must be kept in mind while energy strategies are being devised. Focusing instead on reliable region-specific
hydrological forecasts can also lead to highly skilful wind predictions and projections at regional and local levels. Again, several efforts are already underway within the country in this direction.

India’s investment in science and technology education has paid handsome dividends although it has mostly been benefitting the service industry. A similar concerted effort is now needed to grow a knowledge-base for climate science and also get technology graduates to focus on carbon-neutral climate-solutions to serve the country’s needs for water, food, and energy security and also to capture the lucrative global renewable energy markets.

India can hardly ignore the geopolitics of the region when it comes to the severe vulnerabilities of the region to climate change. At the most benign end of the spectrum, these vulnerabilities offer a unique opportunity for shared sustainable economic development of the entire region while at the other end of the spectrum are the implications for national security. All these factors must drive India’s position at the Paris summit.

Raghu Murtugudde is a Professor of Earth System Science at the University of Maryland and the Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Forecast System

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