Frequency, length and intensity of heatwaves has increased, while we continue to escalate coal mining and to increase our coal dependence for power
Image: Ahmad Masood/Reuters
In Bokaro Steel City, set on the Chota Nagpur Plateau in a coal-rich district of Jharkhand, 55-year-old Jethu Mahto’s work day begins at six in the morning and finishes at two in the afternoon. Mahto has been working in the Bermo Coal Mines for 35 years and continues, even under a punishing sun, amidst a devastating heatwave in one of the hottest areas of India.
The first part of the sixth IPCC report ‘Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis’ released in August 2021 says that in the Indian subcontinent, “Heat extremes have increased while cold extremes have decreased, and these trends will continue over the coming decades.”
It didn’t take long for India to experience these dire predictions of heat made just a few months ago. In March 2022, even as the second part of the IPCC ‘Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’ was being released, a series of prolonged heatwaves began unseasonably early, much earlier than normal Indian summer. These heatwaves continue to devastate landscapes and people nearly two months later, showing no signs of abatement.
In Mumbai and Delhi, it’s hotter than we can remember. The worst heatwave in recorded Indian history has us scrambling indoors for the air conditioning and fans. We cannot even imagine the condition of those who toil outdoors, mining coal, exposed directly to unbearable heat.
Besides, the air conditioning we use to combat the worst heatwave in 122 years requires electricity. In India, electricity uses coal; coal is the single greatest contributor to climate change and to the heatwave itself, from its extraction to its burning.
People reacted to the blistering heat in various ways: Those who could afford them increased their use of air conditioning and fans. Some less fortunate, like Mahto, continued to toil to extract more coal than before to meet the increased demand for power.
While releasing the second part of the IPCC in March 2022, UN Secretary-General António Guterres left no doubt to the severity of global warming when concluding that “today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership”.
Although heatwaves in India are not a new phenomenon, their frequency and duration have escalated in the past decade. In the 1990s, two heatwaves were recorded. Both were in the summer months of May and June, in June 1995 and May/June 1998.
In the 2000s, India suffered four heatwaves, twice the number of those in the 1990s. Two of these began a month earlier than before, in April/May 2002, May/June 2015, April/May 2016 and May/June 2019.
But the one currently devastating India, in summer 2022, began earlier than ever before. Air Vice Marshal GP Sharma, president, meteorology & climate change, Skymet, told Forbes India, “The heatwave of 2022 began as early as March, breaking previous records. Pre-monsoon 2022 possibly will make history to have recorded extreme heat in all the three months (March-April-May, 2022).”
Not only their frequency and length but their intensity too has increased. The average temperature in India in March 2022 was about 33 degrees C, the warmest March ever recorded since records began in 1902.
Vaibhav Chaturvedi from Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) explains that climate change is “related to heatwaves, because they have arrived early, that is after March 12, which is very early. It had covered almost all of India by the end of March.”
The COP26, the last chance event for the world to restrict the ravages of climate change, listed coal and deforestation as two of the most serious causes of climate change.
Nevertheless, even as the 2022 heatwave continues to prolong and become hotter, we are simultaneously exposed to unrelenting news of forests marked to be cut in national parks to build roads; replacement of biodiverse forests in Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands with new development models including airports, power plants and shipping terminals; commercial agriculture of palm oil in the North-East; permission to mining in no-go forests.
Mining for coal in the biodiverse Hasdeo forest in Chhattisgarh, an important elephant migration corridor of 170,000 hectares, is only one among 40 new coal blocks identified by the Central government during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. Like Hasdeo, many others are in ‘no-go’ forest areas, richest in biodiversity and most important to preserve in their natural state to prevent the existential threat of climate change.
On May 3, 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at a meeting in Copenhagen, “India has been able to fulfill its climate action because, unlike others who put all the responsibility of saving the planet on multilateral organisations, we see it as a responsibility of each citizen to do their bit to save the world.”
Meanwhile, on the ground in Hasdeo, though people have protested for a decade against coal mining, the state government approved mining on April 6, for which forest clearance was granted to cut 95,000 trees.
Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (HABSS) held a meeting in 2014 to oppose mining in the biodiverse Hasdeo forest in Chhattisgarh, an important elephant migration corridor. Though opposed by adivasis and local gramsabhas for over a decade and by people across India and across the world, permission to cut 95,000 trees was given recently and trees were felled at night to make way for coal mining. Image: Alok Shukla captured Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan in 2014
On April 25, ignoring the Chipko movement-inspired protests of women who hugged trees and even nationwide protests, trees were cut down overnight. A second phase of mining at Hasdeo might be even worse. According to news reports, 1136.328 ha of land might be diverted and 2,42,670 trees might be cut.
"Living trees give oxygen,” said retired Chief Justice of India Sharad Bobde while hearing a petition against permits to cut 300 trees for five railway overbridges in West Bengal in December 2020. “It is obvious that there cannot be compensatory reforestation if a 100-year-old tree is cut down.”
Justice Bobde’s remark was a response to a Supreme Court-appointed expert committee that filed a report quantifying “products” of an individual tree at worth Rs74,500. The report highlighted that 300 trees would cost India a staggering Rs2,23,50,00,000 after quantifying oxygen, micronutrients, compost and bio-fertiliser these trees would produce over 100 years of their natural lifetime.
While cutting down nearly 2 lakh ancient trees at Hasdeo and despite PM Modi’s statement that people should take responsibility to save our world, the government did not heed people’s protests and did not consider the effects that deforestation and increased coal use would have in triggering intense climate events such as the current heatwave, a matter of life or death for millions.
CEEW’s Chaturvedi says, “We did not consider this kind of big event and we were surprised.” He goes on to say that although now planners are “doing whatever they can”, it would be better to be prepared because “there will be load shedding, industrial power cuts that lead to direct GDP loss. If power cuts happen for the household sector, there will be no GDP loss but there will be a big social welfare loss.”
It has long been understood that climate events lead directly to GDP loss. “Rising temperatures and changing monsoon rainfall patterns from climate change could cost India 2.8 percent of GDP and depress the living standards of nearly half the country’s population by 2050,” a World Bank report of June 2018 says.
The Indian government does not recognise heatwaves as a potential threat to human lives. The National Disaster Management Act and the National Policy on Disaster Management do not include heatwave fatalities in their list of natural calamities and so no budgetary allocation is made to address the problem.
To deal with rising temperatures, Miami, Florida, Phoenix, Arizona in the USA; Athens in Greece and others in the world have appointed chief heat officers to protect their citizens from heatwaves. The first Heat Action Plan in India was developed for Ahmedabad after 1,300 people lost their lives due to the heatwaves in 2010.
A report by IndiaSpend claims that about 6,167 people lost their lives between 2010 and 2018 due to severe heatwaves. And according to IMD, the hot spells have led to the death of more than 17,000 Indians in the past 50 years in India.
Amid the ongoing heatwave in India, outdoor workers like Mahto in the Jharkhand coal mine face a daunting situation. Along with him, the rest of the world faces increasing heatwaves too.
India’s neighboring country Pakistan is battling with blistering temperatures too. Earlier this year Western Australia and central South America were the hottest places in the world.
At COP26, India pledged to decrease its coal reliance 50 years from today, decades beyond the urgent deadline of the UN set for 2050 in a ‘last chance’ for humanity.
This lack of urgency in India’s climate ambitions is centered around our power grid, which is largely dependent on coal. Already the third largest coal user in the world, India is steeply escalating coal dependence.
Despite India’s increased clean energy capabilities, its distribution system is among the most inefficient in the world, with almost double the world average in transmission losses. Much of the coal we mine or import is wasted in transmission and distribution.
“In the last 15 years, a lot of investments have come in. Of course there is a long way to go. We will have a much more efficient grid in the next 10 years,” says CEEW’s Chaturvedi.
In the meantime, the climate-induced heatwave has triggered an increase in power demand, leading to outages in many states and fears of a coal shortage. In the first week of May, India registered an unprecedented 207,111 MW peak power demand, nearly tipping the energy system out of balance. This insistent heatwave shows climate change is real and therefore decarbonisation of the grid is vital. Renewables will bring a paradigm shift in the way energy planners operate.
Kuldeep Jain, founder and MD of CleanMax, a renewable energy company in India says, “We are already helping corporations take a leave of fossil-fueled electricity and reduce their carbon footprint which is essential to reducing emissions and curbing such drastic climate changes such as heatwaves. CleanMax is already looking at intensifying its project execution so that we can help an increasing number of firms go green and have a real impact.”
Climate change is not going to stop, uncertainties are only going to increase on that front, so only through proper planning we should be able to mitigate these kinds of situations, explains Chaturvedi.
However, Suruchi Bhadwal, director, Earth Science and Climate Change Division at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) explains that it may take decades to undergo the transition because, “our current infrastructure is also structured in terms of the use of the traditional fuels that we’ve been using”.
While we continue to increase our coal dependence, the closed loop of climate change worsens as a direct consequence of our own activities. India is the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the world, after China and the US. The country emits about 2.46 billion metric tonnes of carbon pollutants each year, which roughly translates to about 6.8 percent of the total global emissions, according to news reports.
Another week-long dry and hot spell which started on May 9 covered the northern, central and western parts. As temperatures in India approach those in the hottest parts of the world, “heat acts as a catalyst to accentuate and escalate the weather activity, inclusive of unseasonal rain/thundershower/hailstorm etc.,” according to Sharma of Skymet.
“As a country, to meet the demands of its people in a situation where we were exposed to the heatwave conditions where the energy demands were increasing and cooling requirements had increased, India ended up doing what any other country would’ve done in terms of providing energy to its people to be able to reach a certain comfort level,” explains Bhadwal.
But, for the coal miner toiling out in the sun to extract the coal that is much in demand due to the heatwave, comfort is a distant dream.
“It’s hotter than usual this time and working in this unbearable heat becomes difficult on some days. But do we have any other option? This is the only source of income so I just keep going,” says Mahto in Jharkhand. Through extreme adversity, he remains undaunted. “But it will get better in some weeks,” he says.