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Blog: Not Just A Hotter April

A huge part of India - northwest and central - has just experienced its hottest April on record. This is not just another heatwave. This is what scientists have been…

A huge part of India – northwest and central – has just experienced its hottest April on record. This is not just another heatwave. This is what scientists have been warning for decades, that global warming will lead to more frequent and more intense extreme weather events. And frequent spells of heatwaves.

This time though something seems to have changed. A climate emergency has led to immediate repercussions outside the region it occurred, the impact is nationwide. Usually when there’s an extreme weather event, say, flooding, rainfall, or a cyclone, it’s somewhat limited geographically and in its impact on humans and the economy. But now even places like Tamil Nadu which aren’t suffering heatwaves have been hit by a coal and power shortage.

The crisis is threatening the very engine of the economy. Many thermal power plants which provide a bulk of India’s electricity are running low on coal stocks; Punjab’s power minister says demand has risen 40 per cent, and his Bihar counterpart admitted an electricity shortfall of 1,000 MW. The net result is power cuts, in state after state. Things are so bad that passenger trains were cancelled to rush more coal. Six months ago, a few power plants were shut down around Delhi because of extremely hazardous air pollution in the capital. Human-made environmental disasters in India are making it difficult to keep the lights on. The costs on health and wallets will only go up unless there’s a speedy and proper policy response.

How bad is it?

March 2022, was India’s hottest on record at 33.1 degrees, which is almost two degrees above normal. Heatwaves began then have been on for six weeks and counting. Temperatures have been well above normal. The met department defines a heatwave in the plains as above 40 degrees combined with temperatures that are 4.5 degrees above normal.

In April, records have been shattered. Places like Gurgaon, Lucknow, Allahabad, and Chandigarh have seen new highs in April. Banda in UP recorded 47.4 degrees and almost 400 km away Dholpur, Rajasthan, hit 47.3 on April 29. Seven hundred km up north, parts of Delhi and Gurgaon were around 46 degrees. The rainfall in this area is 87 per cent less than the normal for March and April.

There were more than 300 large forest fires reported at the end of April, almost a third in just Uttarakhand.

Temperatures in India, 27th April 2020.

Ignoring the Fingerprints?

What’s hitting the headlines more than the heatwave is the coal and power crisis. While that is perhaps understandable given how it affects ordinary folk directly, it avoids the depth of the crisis. The fingerprints of climate change are all over this disaster. Yet it’s still not being recognised fully as such. For instance, three top newspapers in Delhi led with the power shortage stories, but ‘climate change’ or any similar phrase wasn’t mentioned on the front pages of these reports.

While the coal and power shortage is being attributed to poor management fuelled by populist free or cheap power policies, the reason it’s boiled over now is the extreme heat. Power demand has been spiking, hitting new record highs thrice in the last few days, the latest at the time of writing being 207 gigawatts of demand met. While scientists are cautious to link any specific extreme weather event to climate change, these are consistent with what they expect because of global warming.

Heatwave 2022 changes everything, but it’s not just a hotter March and April. Our climate has changed. The official in charge of India’s weather and climate services told NDTV that more incidents of extreme rainfall can be expected, and that’s because of climate change.

Coal and power may be facing a climate change-triggered crisis today, but tomorrow it could be a water shortage, especially in the near-absence of rain. It could be food scarcity; already there are some estimates that wheat production could be hit by 10%. It could be cooling or shelter or timely health care. What this summer has already shown is that climate change can trigger and exacerbate any crisis, regardless of whether the extreme weather event happens where you live or not.

True, the mismanagement of the coal and power sector can be fixed, given political will, in time for future heatwaves. However, the irony is that coal is responsible for much of global warming, being the dirtiest widely used fuel. India has a strong moral and economic argument to continue with coal plus an ambitious clean energy programme. But can Indian policy-makers afford to stick with the use-more-coal plan, can it afford climate disasters which seem to be growing in scale? Perhaps they can until climate emergency becomes a voter-priority.

(Chetan Bhattacharji is Senior Managing Editor at NDTV)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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