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A warmer Arabian Sea, energy transition, a search for economic value

Recovering from the assault of multiple COVID-19 waves in the past two years, the Indian economy showed signs of recovery in 2022. But there are dangerous clouds with the Arabian Sea warming above the cyclogenesis point, resulting in extreme weather events that can adversely affect the economy, says S. Gopikrishna Warrier. India continued with determination on its transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy during the year. Though at international fora India enthused other countries into environmental action, the record within the country was disappointing, he points out

After two years of fear, illness, deaths and economic loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2022 was a year that brought rays of sunshine. When India, like the rest of the world, was trying to make the best of the brightness, the shadows of the war in Ukraine and its fallout on fuel and food availability dampened the story. In headline terms, two watershed developments marked the year for the country.

First, scientific studies confirmed that the Arabian Sea temperature was warming to levels that could induce cyclones. This forebodes the disturbing fact that the southwest monsoon – which picks up its moisture from the Arabian Sea – could also become a string of extreme weather events (EWEs) in the coming years like the northeast monsoon, that has its genesis from the Bay of Bengal. The adverse impacts are already becoming visible with the southwest monsoon losing its reliability of rainfall patterns with more frequent cyclonic rains.

Second, the government-announced transition from fossil fuel-based energy generation to renewable energy, gathered strength during the year. In terms of economics, India boasted of the third richest person in the world during 2022, while on the Global Hunger Index the country dropped from position 101 to 107. On the GDP front, the year marked a return to growth after the pandemic. The World Bank estimates India’s GDP to grow by 6.9 per cent in financial year 2022-23. This is a sign of hope after the precipitous drop of 23.9 per cent during the April-June quarter of 2020 during the pandemic.

At the end of the year there was news of improvement in the job market, even though the news in September was in the negative territory. In November, there was an improvement in the collection of goods and service tax, indicating improvement in domestic consumption and thereby incomes.

A warming Arabian Sea

During the year, we, at Mongabay-India, reported how research documented the increase in heat-wave days in the Arabian Sea, with every decade in the last 40 years having recorded roughly 20 more marine heat-wave days. This trend is reinforced by the findings of another study documenting increase in marine heat waves over northern and western Indian Ocean. There is also improved scientific understanding on the relationship between climate change and tropical cyclones in the Indian Ocean Region.

Fishers in Kerala. In 2022, Mongabay-India reported how research documented the increase in heatwave days in the Arabian Sea, with every decade in the last 40 years having recorded roughly 20 more marine heatwave days. Predicting the marine heatwaves will also help the fishing communities, say scientists. Photo: Frank Raj/Pixabay

Scientists put together longitudinal rainfall data recorded by tea planters in Assam and coffee growers in Karnataka. Though informally recorded, rainfall data in some estates go across generations of owners, and are geographically disaggregated at hyper-local sites, while India Meteorological Department (IMD) weather stations are in more centralised locations. The data from the northeast show that there has been increasing frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall, even while the average rainfall has decreased. On the other hand, data from the coffee estates of Western Ghats show that though heavy spells of rain are not uncommon, in the more recent years the heavy spells are spread over shorter number of days, thereby indicating increasing intensity of the extreme weather events.

This year we reported an IMD analysis that noted that between 1989 and 2018 Rajasthan has registered a significant increase in heavy rainfall days, especially in the state’s desert-dominated western region. Ironically, in 2018 we had reported another study that noted that Kerala had got consistently drier over the past decades. In the meanwhile, there has been research to improve the methodological framework for IMD to declare the monsoon status. We also reported that tracing oxygen and hydrogen isotopes can help improve estimating the monsoon withdrawal date.

Even though agriculture contributes only around 20 per cent of India’s gross domestic product (GDP), it still has the most significant role in kick-starting the country’s annual economic cycle after the kharif(monsoon) harvest. Since it provides livelihoods to nearly 45 per cent of the population in the country (globally this figure is close to 25 per cent), the agricultural sector is the bedrock of the economy, which registered a growth even during the pandemic years. In 2022, the heat wave had its impact on wheat production. Punjab faced low yield and quality of wheat this year.

Be it the festivities of Onam in Kerala, or Diwali in the rest of the country, India’s annual economic cycle starts with the first harvest after the onset of the southwest monsoon. If changes in the southwest monsoon patterns continues, it could adversely affect the agricultural production and incomes, and in turn impact the other sectors in the economy.

The heat wave also impacted human health. In fact, the Working Group II Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) even talks about anxiety and stress due to extreme weather impacting mental health. With increasing temperature in the Arabian Sea making it more prone to heat waves and birth of cyclones and the resultant loss in the reliability of the southwest monsoon, the year could mark the beginning of new vicious cycles such as these.

Energy production moving to renewable sources

Following through on the announcement made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Glasgow Conference of Parties to the Climate Change Convention held in November 2021, the national government announced renewed nationally determined contributions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. This includes enhancing the share of non-fossil fuels to 50 per cent by 2030, and thus India was firmly on the path of energy transition in 2022.

Farmers showing the shrivelled wheat grain, impacted by the heatwave in 2022. Photo: Kapil Kajal

We looked at the larger policy and infrastructural issues. This related to green hydrogen, transmission infrastructure, decentralised energy and supply chain management. We also realised that despite the energy transition, coal will still stay strong for decades to come.

Through our reporting we explored how this panned out in different parts of the country. While the Sundarbans missed the opportunity for a solar revolution, Jharkhand’s coal mine workers are scared of losing their job and social security with the transition to renewable power. While Delhi was working to improve its electric vehicle charging ecosystem, Madhya Pradesh was trying to discipline commercial vehicle operators from using domestic connections for charging.

We returned to the earliest wind farm sites in the country in southern Tamil Nadu. Our stories reported that even while the local communities had arguments against the installations, they were happy about the increased incomes. The approach of local communities in the Gulf of Mannar Region of Tamil Nadu towards the proposed offshore wind energy generation was similar, thereby proving that communities rarely see these projects as black or white binaries.

At the site of the massive power plant in Pavagada in Karnataka, the communities rue that even after giving their land for the utility, they have to suffer frequent power cuts and biodiversity loss. Even a decade after commissioning, villagers at Charanka in Gujarat, where India’s first solar power plant was established, are waiting for their promised jobs, electricity, clean drinking water and irrigation.

A year of decadal anniversaries

2022 was a year of historic milestones. It was 30 years since the Rio Earth Summit of Rio de Janeiro, and the conventions it created – biodiversity, climate change and desertification. In our assessment we found that the country’s environmental report card in the three decades was not totally in the red.

It was also 30 years since the 73rd and the 74th Amendments to the Constitution came into being, starting the process of devolving political power to the people. Our commentary marking this 30th anniversary celebrated the people’s movements to get the national government to give more teeth to the amendments through enactment of the legislation to extend the devolution to tribal-dominated areas and getting more forest rights to them.

It was the 50th anniversary for the Wildlife Protection Act, the legislation passed by the Indira Gandhi-led national government in the same year that she was the only non-host head of state participating in the Stockholm environment summit. Usha Rai, a pioneering environment journalist in India, assessed the impact of the legislation for us.

Climate change and biodiversity CoPs in 2022

At the Climate Change Convention’s COP27 held at Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt in November, India surprised the global community by asking for a phase down of all fossil fuels and not just coal, a demand which was picked up and echoed by many other countries. India also pushed for a loss and damage fund, a collective demand at the conference. The decision to establish such a fund was the most significant breakthrough from COP27.

At COP27, India also announced its long-term low emission development strategy, with a strong push for developing a green hydrogen ecosystem. It is expected that India will talk strongly about climate change mitigation in its role as the G20 president, which it took over from Indonesia on December 1.

Wind turbines near the Tirunelveli-Kanyakumari state highway road in Aralvaimozhi, Tamil Nadu. This is one of Asia’s oldest windfarms. Photo: Narayana Swamy Subbaraman/Mongabay

Finance was also a matter of intense discussion even at the much-postponed COP15 to the Convention on Biological Diversity, held at Montreal in Canada in December. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) that came out of COP15, aims to ensure that 30 per cent of terrestrial and marine areas will be conserved by 2030 for biodiversity, even while recognising indigenous and traditional territories where applicable. The GBF also listed four goals with 23 action-oriented targets for mainstreaming biodiversity conservation across countries.

India had also argued for increased benefit sharing from digital sequence information (DSI) to biodiversity-rich countries at COP15. The impact of DSI on farmers’ rights was discussed at the governing body meeting of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, hosted in New Delhi.

As a precursor to India’s participation in COP27 and the G20 presidency, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres launched Mission LiFE (Lifestyle for Environment) with the objective of promoting simpler lifestyles for reducing individual and collective carbon footprint. Experts writing for Mongabay-India, however, commented that the LiFE concept was better suited for the urban residents rather than their rural counterparts.

Similar enthusiasm not reflected at home

Even as these pronouncements blend well with India’s notion of being the vishwaguru (a global leader) on the global stage, many policy actions within the country did not match this image domestically. In governmental actions, ease of doing business overrode environmental considerations.

Despite the liberal use of green concepts in the Union Budget, the action plan it supported is more likely to damage the environment than conserve it. Our story reported that the issue of climate change did not get adequate discussion time in the Parliament. Also, the controversial amendments to the Biological Diversity Act were endorsed by the parliamentary committee assigned to examine the issue.

An infrastructure development project that can cause significant threat to the biodiversity of the Great Nicobar Island was unveiled in 2022. Our story with maps uncovered the scale of the damage it can cause to the island’s unique biodiversity.

Months before the Vizhinjam Port project blew into the major recent controversy, we wrote about how the construction could adversely affect the wadge bank, a uniquely fertile fishing ground in the ocean that is rich in biodiversity.  A few hundred kilometres north, a port development spree across the Karnataka coast have raised the hackles of the local communities. They are protesting the loss of their common spaces and impact on the biodiversity. Further north, in Ratnagiri District in Maharashtra, the opposition is to an oil refinery.

Cut to Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast, where authorities are considering the Yobin Community – which has been living within the park for generations – as encroachers. In Jharkhand, parcelling of lands that communities have been using into land banks for future development has been causing conflict, especially since some of it are lands on which forest dwellers have forest rights.

The decision to establish the loss and damage fund is seen as a significant breakthrough in COP27 held in November 2022, at Egypt. Photo: IISD/ENB

Articulating the economic linkages

Through our reporting in 2022, we could articulate the economic linkages on one end of the environmental spectrum – the need for sustainable finance mechanisms for energy transition. We explored green bonds and green finance, carbon credit markets, and how the Reserve Bank of India wants to incorporate the idea of climate risk into finance.

In 2023, we plan to bring to you enhanced reporting on how economics and the ecosystem values of biodiversity are intertwined. The language of money is universal. It is as relevant for the villages and forest dwellers losing access to their natural resources, as it is for the third-richest person on planet earth.

In the last weeks of the year, at the Biodiversity COP15 held at Montreal in Canada, there was once again heated discussions on finance to conserve biodiversity, and it was decided to raise at least $30 billion annually by 2030 from the developed countries. However, the real progress will happen with a more paradigmatic change.

As long as conventional economic calculations only find value for the utility value of nature’s resources and totally overlook the consistent and perennial economic value that conservation of biological diversity and its ecosystem services provide, development versus environment confrontations will continue. For conservation to effectively happen, research has to prove to decision makers – with scientific vigour – that there is economic value in conservation that overrides that of utilisation of natural resources.

We hope to take these discussions into the public and policy space through our reporting in the coming year. Only when wetlands are enumerated and identified for their economic value, and when the classification of grasslands as wastelands is corrected, will there be hope for environmental conservation being viewed as a support to development; and not as an antithesis.

 (Courtesy: Mongabay India. The writer is managing editor, Mongabay India, and this article was his ‘editor’s review’ for 2022.)

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