February 23, 2024

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Extreme heat is pushing India to the brink of 'survivability'. One obvious solution is also a big part of the problem

Extreme heat is pushing India to the brink of 'survivability'.  One obvious solution is also a big part of the problem


When sweltering heat swept through the Indian capital this summer, Ramesh says he felt faint but had no choice but to continue toiling under the hot sun to support his family.

“The heat has become unbearable,” the 34-year-old construction worker told CNN. “But we have no choice. We have to work.”

Ramesh lives with his parents, three brothers, his sister-in-law and three children, in a crowded suburb of west Delhi, a city that has made headlines in recent years with mercury levels regularly rising to dangerous levels.

With temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) last June – closing schools, destroying crops and straining energy supplies – the heat was making his family sick, too.

Ramesh, who goes by one name, says he borrowed $35 — nearly half his monthly salary — from relatives to buy a used air conditioner for his home.

“It makes noise, and sometimes it kicks up dust,” he said. But he can't do without her.

Aishwarya Iyer/CNN

Ramesh sits outside his apartment in Delhi.

By 2050, India will be among the first places where temperatures will exceed the limits of survival. According to climate experts. During this time frame, demand for air conditioners in the country is also expected to rise nine-fold, outpacing all other appliances, according to a recent report. Recent report By the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Ramesh's predicament sums up the paradox facing the world's most populous nation of 1.4 billion people: the hotter and wealthier India becomes, the more Indians will use air conditioning. The more they use air conditioning, the hotter the country becomes.

India emits approximately 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually on an annual basis Data Collected by the European Union – it contributes about 7% of global emissions. By comparison, the United States accounts for 13% of carbon dioxide emissions, despite having a quarter of India's population.

This raises the issue of fairness for climate scientists Often askedShould people in the developing world bear the costs of cutting emissions, even though they are among the countries least responsible for rising global greenhouse gases?

At the recently concluded COP28 climate talks in Dubai, India was not among the list of countries that signed a pledge to reduce its emissions from cooling systems. Addressing the opening session of the summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said all developing countries should be given a “fair share in the global carbon budget.”

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However, India, one of the world's fastest growing economies, is on the front line of the climate crisis. She finds herself in a difficult situation. How can it balance its development while ensuring environmental protection?

Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a session at the United Nations Climate Summit in Dubai on December 1, 2023.

Large sections of India's population still depend on air conditioners for their physical and mental health. The country's more tropical southern regions remain hot throughout the year.

Over the past five decades, the country has experienced more than 700 heat waves that have killed more than 17,000 people, according to 2021 statistics. Stady Extreme weather in the Journal of Weather and Climate Extremes. In June alone, temperatures rise in some parts of the country It rose to 47 degrees Celsius (116 F), killing at least 44 people and causing hundreds of heat-related illnesses.

By 2030, India may account for 34 million of the 80 million projected job losses globally due to heat stress, according to a recent report. World Bank report In December 2022.

This puts millions of people at risk in a country where more than 50% of the workforce works in agriculture. As incomes rise steadily, and as urban populations rise, air conditioner ownership has grown at a remarkable rate.

India's electricity consumption from cooling – which includes air conditioners and refrigerators – increased by 21% between 2019 and 2022, according to the International Energy Agency. He added that by 2050, India's total electricity demand from residential air conditioners will exceed total electricity consumption across Africa today.

But this demand is also exacerbating the global climate crisis.

Like refrigerators, many air conditioners today use a class of refrigerants called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are harmful greenhouse gases. Even more problematic is that air conditioners tend to use large amounts of electricity generated by burning fossil fuels.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that greenhouse gas emissions linked to air conditioning – if left unchecked – could cause global temperatures to rise by up to 0.5°C by the end of this century.

India continues to grapple with widespread poverty, while spending billions to modernize transportation and urban infrastructure, while facing long-term challenges to improve living standards.

Experts say reducing refrigeration-related emissions could be seen as a potential drag on the country's economic growth.

During the recent COP summit, 63 countries – including the United States, Kenya and Canada – signed a pledge to reduce their emissions from cooling systems by 68%, along with several other goals, by 2050. India was not among the group.

Despite this, Brian Dean, head of energy efficiency and cooling at Sustainable Energy for All, which helped develop the agreement, said India had shown “important international leadership on cooling”.

“Although it has not joined the Global Cooling Pledge yet, important progress has been made in sustainable cooling domestically and international partners hope that India will consider joining it in the future,” he said.

Under the United Nations Charter 2016 Kigali AmendmentMany countries including India are phasing out HFCs and replacing them with more climate-friendly options, such as hydrofluorocarbons or HFOs.

Similar moves have succeeded in the past. The Kigali Amendment is an update to the Montreal Protocol that helped phase out ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, in the 1980s.

However, countries that lack access to adequate cooling need help to cover the costs of energy improvements, according to Radhika Khosla, an assistant professor at the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at the University of Oxford.

“Cooling is now on the global agenda,” she said. “But the hard work needs to begin to ensure everyone can stay cool without overheating the planet.”

Planting trees to absorb sunlight, water bodies, courtyards that promote cooling and smart ventilation are among the more sustainable “passive cooling strategies” proposed by Khosla.

She added that installing ceiling fans in buildings can reduce household energy consumption for cooling by more than 20%.

“If successful, passive cooling measures could reduce cooling demand by 24% by 2050, saving US$3 trillion and neutralizing greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 1.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide,” she said.

Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Residents fill water from a water tank in a slum in New Delhi, India, on Friday, May 19, 2023.

India has also promised to reduce energy demand for cooling by 20-25% by 2038 under its Cooling Action Plan announced in 2019, while continuing to focus on developing and implementing cost-effective solutions in line with its economic goals.

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Dean describes it as “one of the first comprehensive national cooling action plans to be developed globally.”

He said it was “an important moment to underscore the need to proactively and urgently address the growth in refrigeration demand, including in agriculture where sustainable cold chains can prevent food loss and improve nutritional outcomes.”

Renewable energy in India is also growing faster than any other major economy, and data shows it is on track to meet emissions reduction targets, according to Leena Nandan, secretary of India's Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

She told reporters during the COP28 summit that India remains proactive in finding climate solutions, even though it is not a major contributor to the crisis.

“We have continued to expand our climate ambitions,” she said.

But India's air conditioning boom has been evident in almost every urban corner of the country.

Hundreds of construction sites are spread across the capital, where workers toil to build gleaming high-rises to house New Delhi's burgeoning middle class.

Binta Anil Kumar, a businessman who lives in Lajpat Nagar, a bustling south Delhi neighbourhood, said he was aware of the harmful emissions emanating from his air conditioner and had deliberately bought an energy-efficient model capable of meeting his cooling needs.

“Although I know that using air conditioners contributes to higher temperatures, I also know that I can't do anything else,” he said.

But Kumar is among the luckiest of those who can afford a more expensive air-conditioned model.

Ghasiram, a 65-year-old laborer from Delhi's Rohini neighborhood, paid $36 to a contractor to secure a used air conditioning unit for his family. But that's more than he earns in a month.

Ghasiram, who goes by one name, said he did not know that emissions from his air conditioner were partly driving the temperatures. But he suffers the consequences.

“The heat has gotten worse over the years,” he said. “When I need to go out to work in the heat, I get nervous. I prefer not to go out.”