As Climate Harms Mount, India Responds to Protect Health

The first installment of the new IPCC Sixth Assessment report makes the case more clearly than ever: we need to take urgent action to limit the worst effects of climate change, because we’re already locked-in to human-caused warming on a scale that demands adaptation. We must take action, and now, to avoid further, utterly catastrophic disruptions. That version of The Future in which your grandchildren curse you for the rest of their lives is not yet a totally done deal.

But there’s a shattering reluctance on the part of many world leaders to take on the fossil fuel extractors, burners, polluters, and profiteers. And while urban heat adaptations are making strides in the United States, there are as yet relatively few places where broader, integrated climate adaptation is being strongly supported and implemented at a pace equal to public opinion on the need for more climate protection.

One place where climate adaptation efforts are especially urgent is India, a country that is already facing multiple worsening climate risks:

  • Sea Level Rise: According to the IPCC, relative sea level around Asia has increased faster than global average, with coastal area loss and shoreline retreat happening right now and regional-mean sea level expected to continue rising in the years to come.
     
  • Extreme Heat: Heatwaves are becoming more frequent and intense around the world, and climate change will continue to worsen the intensity of heatwaves and humid heat stress. In India, temperature records show a 17 percent increase in the number of extremely hot days (34.2-40.2 °C, or 93.6-104.4 °F) from 1981-2010 and a 76 percent increase in the number of people exposed to extreme heat over the same period. Extreme heat is a particular threat in urban areas due to the combination of paved surfaces like concrete and asphalt, tall buildings, heat-generating human activities and absence of vegetation that act to trap heat.
     
  • Air Pollution: Indian cities struggle with some of the world’s worst outdoor air pollution, which triggers nearly one million annual deaths in the country each year. Climate warming could make this problem even worse by triggering more formation of dangerous ground-level ozone smog. Recent estimates indicate that India’s smog problem already kills about 374,000 Indians each year, and that number could grow by a factor of three if climate pollution is not reduced.
     
  • Monsoon Variability: The new IPCC report indicates that rainfall from both annual and summer monsoon precipitation will increase during the 21st century, with a higher degree of year-to-year variation in monsoon precipitation. Average and heavy precipitation will increase over much of Asia, according to climate models, threatening increased flooding, including in cities such as Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata.

Given these threats, actions to cut climate pollution and bolster community preparedness for increasingly threatening sea level rise, storms, and heatwaves are more urgent than ever. India’s government is taking bold steps on both the climate change mitigation and adaptation fronts:

  • On meeting growing energy needs with clean and renewable energy, India is making good progress toward meeting its stated goal of 450 Gigawatts (GW) of installed renewable energy by the year 2030. Just last week, India reached a milestone by achieving 100 GW of installed solar capacity and is on track to meet its interim target of 175 GW by 2022. India is already in the top four of global countries in terms of installed renewable energy capacity and is poised to advance to the top three before the end of this decade.
     
  • On putting climate adaptation into action to protect public health, India again is leading the way. The city of Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat had a terrible 2010 heat wave that killed many hundreds of people. City leaders vowed to find a way to protect people’s health from extreme heat, and with help from partners at the Indian Institute of Public Health-Gandhinagar, and NRDC, developed and launched South Asia’s first Heat Action Plan and early warning system. Since its 2013 launch, more than 1,100 deaths annually have been avoided. Heat Action Plans now operate in 23 states and more than 100 Indian cities, and in 2021 India's National Disaster Management Authority launched a “Cool Roof Challenge” to encourage cities to employ low-cost, low-tech ways toward cooling relief.
     
  • On reducing air pollution, India’s National Clean Air Plan (launched in 2019) aims to reduce levels of air pollution in India’s most polluted cities by 20-30 percent by 2024. City-level efforts are underway to address the chronic pollution problem and integrate air quality management with efforts to fight climate change and protect public health.
     
  • On climate friendly cooling, India’s government recently announced that it will ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the global pact to phase down super climate-polluting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). India has for decades played a key role in bringing about the success of the Montreal protocol, the hugely successful international environmental treaty. India was one of the first countries to release a national Cooling Action Plan (ICAP) in 2019, which sets domestic targets for cooling efficiency and refrigerants. The ICAP provides short-, medium- and long-term recommendations on interventions across economic sectors to reduce HFC usage, cut cooling demand, and advance sustainable cooling and thermal comfort for all.

Adaptation and Preparedness Are Urgent

Although India and the wider South Asian region are already bearing a heavy burden of regional climate changes, India is taking action to respond to this crisis. And with action come more reasons to hope—for more aggressive efforts that will limit the worst impacts of climate change, and nurture a future that all our children can thrive in.

India is a critical global stakeholder in charting a low carbon future. It has exemplified its climate leadership by taking swift action on various aspects of the climate pledge under the Paris Agreement. It must continue to build on this good work and take the opportunity to build even stronger readiness and capacity to meet its long-term climate ambitions.

About the Authors

Kim Knowlton

Senior Scientist, Science Office

Vijay Limaye

Senior Scientist, Science Office
Blog Post

Climate adaptation is a clear-eyed recognition that the climate crisis is here, and that we can’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done.

Blog Post

Novel research at the intesection of climate and health in India

Blog Post

Brutally hot weather is a major health threat in India and many other parts of the world because climate change is fueling more frequent, intense, and longer heat waves. In response to this mounting threat, cities and regions across India are taking concrete actions to build resilience and better prepare and protect communities.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.