Mayank Mishra (Green Planet Portal) held a candid discussion with Prof. K AchutaRao, lead author of Chapter-3 titled, ‘Climate Information for Risk Assessment and Regional Adaptation’, in the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of Working Group 1 of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Prof. K AchutaRao candidly spoke on different dimensions of concern related to climate change, its impact, and the way ahead.
Mayank Mishra: Prof Rao, we have been aware of climate change for almost four decades now, with AR6 now out, do you think it will put governments into an action-based approach towards climate change?
Prof. K. AchutaRao: With every IPCC report, evidence of climate change has grown and become more concrete. It is clearer than ever that we are facing a serious problem and human beings are the cause. Further, a sense of urgency and immediacy regarding an action-based approach has grown with each IPCC report. Post the Paris Accord, a special IPCC report was released that highlighted the importance of keeping the global average temperature of planet earth under the 1.5-degree target. Recently, released AR6 is an update of this report, and it informs us that our original timeline has shortened and we will cross the 1.5-degree mark before 2040.
Further, it is to be noted that IPCC informs governments about the situation, it doesn’t specify or prescribe policies. It simply states the choices which we can make. To that extent, the governments have the required information to take action and it is up to them to decide on their respective goals, and committing to the cause is a political will. Science informs, but the actions to be taken fall in the realm of politics. I hope the governments are going to look at these issues with a renewed urgency, make commitments and take the required actions which shall keep climate change under check.
Mayank Mishra: Prof. Rao, if we have to look at the history; when AR5 came out, how well do you think the recommendations in it were taken up in practice, specifically in the context of India?
Prof. K. AchutaRao: After the AR5 came out, governments wanted something to be done and so came the Paris Accord. This agreement defined goals and objectives for every participating nation. By all accounts, India has proved to be most active in terms of its promises and actions. However, some countries did not make the number of contributions required. Post AR5, there was action and movement but the current report (AR6) essentially tells us that we under-committed in the last round and the need of the hour is to up the game. We are on the verge of missing the 1.5-degree target and if we don’t want to miss the 2-degrees target, we have to do more. It is incumbent upon all nations to do this in order to make a significant impact.
Whatever impetus AR5 gave to the creation of the Paris Agreement, these commitments have to be upped to make some kind of push towards greater cuts in emissions, especially from the countries that didn’t do enough following the Paris Accord.
Mayank Mishra: Prof. Rao, do you think this whole aspect of bringing in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) is that certain countries have been purposely under-committing to the climate change action missions? Will this be a problem in the future as well?
Prof. K. AchutaRao: Yes, of course. It will be a problem. We have already seen how under-commitments led to failing the 1.5-degree mark and if some nations don’t even commit to keeping temperature rise below the 2-degree mark, it will be a problem. Being a global conference, these nations need to face the pressure to up their commitment level. If this is not achieved, then the upcoming COP26 will also be a failure.
Mayank Mishra: Sir, considering India is an agro-based economy and a rapidly developing nation at that, how do you think we should balance our developmental goals with ecological measures and simultaneously take concrete actions regarding climate change?
Prof. K Achutarao: There are lots of synergies in the actions we take. Take, for instance, environmental degradation, we need to move away from the fossil-based economy. Polluting activities like mining, coal-based power plants, and polluting industrial infrastructure should be done away with. These have led to producing huge amounts of CO2 and pollution. Looking at only the climate or the health problems that are borne as a result of these activities, there are sufficient reasons to stop them altogether.
However, the question remains, can we drop everything and make a switch to solar, wind, or other renewable options? Is it even possible and given the short time scale, even feasible to achieve? We can start by transitioning slowly out of a polluting environment. This decision should weigh in the fact that moving away from a carbon-based economy has not only environmental benefits but several co-benefits with respect to health, wellness, economy, and other things.
As of now, we are not even factoring in the health hazards of climate change. The price that we are paying in the form of premature mortalities, morbidity, and health issues is a huge one. We need to account for these things too when we consider the cost of development versus the ecological challenges we face today. If we would do this, our choices would definitely change. These are tough questions that require thought and critical analysis.
Higher pollution levels hamper agriculture too. If we start accounting for all these things then the balance would most definitely shift in favor of using cleaner sources of energy. The evidence of all this is scattered all over the place, we only need to connect the dots and make well-informed decisions.
Mayank Mishra: Sir, talking about regional adaptation, how can we bring about a change in the huge geographical regions such as South Asia or the world by regional adaptation?
Prof. K. Achuta Rao: The way climate manifests itself is different for every region. There is not a set pattern or a uniform increase or decrease in parameters over a given large geographical region. Some places are going to change faster than others. Even within the Indian subcontinent, differences can be vast. There is no one size fits all solution to these problems. The best way is to regionally adapt to these changes.
When policy decisions are made on how we are going to adapt, they are dependent upon regional parameters and are nuanced and specific to smaller areas. It is more of a granular study than a generalization and that’s why it has to be done at a regional scale.
Mayank Mishra: Prof. Rao, imagining a scenario in which we become carbon-free by the end of this decade. After this happens, how long do you think it will take before we can safely say that we are back to normal or out of the red?
Prof. K. AchutaRao: Currently, we are already at 1.1-degrees. Let’s say by some miracle, zero-carbon is emitted from tomorrow onwards. We will still be at 1.1-degrees. There are already extreme-weather events of heavy rains, cyclones, cloudbursts, etc. everywhere, and that is our new normal. It is not what it used to be a century ago. There is only looking ahead and we do that living with the fact that the globe is now 1.1-degrees hotter.
When you zero out your emissions, the temperature may stop rising. However, you still have to deal with 1.1-degrees hotter than normal. We are not going to go back to a century ago until and unless someone figures out a magical way to take out all the CO2 that’s already there in the atmosphere and bring it back to 280 ppm.
The mean sea level has risen and it is going to stay that way. Even if we stop tomorrow, the climate will continue to worsen for a few years or decades because of the inertia effect. Glaciers will keep melting and these are irreversible changes.
Mayank Mishra: Prof. Rao, coming to the last question, what kind of innovations do you think we need to make India a trendsetter and an ingenious player in terms of an approach to tackle the problem of climate change?
Prof. K. AchutaRao: There are many things that need to change. Understand that technology is useless until it is economical and easily accessible. It is not necessarily that the best technology wins but the ones that suit people the most are eventually taken up by the masses.
Thinking that we will design the best product and it will be used most widely, is a fallacy. Things don’t work that way with technology. We have to think in terms of availability and ease of use too. Take, for example, LED bulbs, they are a great replacement for the traditional incandescent filament bulbs. However, they didn’t become popular until the government began handing them out by millions in exchange for old bulbs.
Technology is not just about building the best gadget, it is inclusive of things like economics, sustainability, ease of access, and use as well. Simply building an electric car doesn’t solve the crisis, electric vehicles have been here for several decades. What is needed is the proper approach to put these things into the hands of the people. Even better, to make the people capable and aware enough to make this rational choice by themselves. So, there is a lot of space for people to start thinking about how to pick technologies and how to ensure that they meet the demands and aspirations of the people.
To sum up, we need a holistic perception of this problem and develop its solutions. We cannot look at things in isolation because it’s all interconnected.
Prof. Krishna AchutaRao is working as a faculty at the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences (IIT-Delhi) since 2007. He has contributed as an author in IPCC Assessment Report 6 (WG1) titled Climate Change 2021 - The Physical Science Basis. His principal fields of interest include regional climate changes, adaptation to climate change, and climate risk assessment. He has co-authored several research papers and is on the editorial panel of many international journals and publications.