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How can India lift its people out of poverty before deadly heat makes daily life impossible? Analysts are anxious to find out as New Delhi sets its goals for economic growth, energy and emissions

The scene was reminiscent of the worst days of the pandemic. Bodies were piled up outside crematoria in Ballia, a town on the banks of the Ganges in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Hospital staff struggled to find beds, and relatives watched helplessly as their loved ones slipped away in front of them.

It was not a pathogen that killed them, however, but the heat.

People in Northern India are used to extreme temperatures, with records in the high 40s and summer heatwaves a routine tribulation. But this June was different. The combined effects of high heat and humidity left dozens dead in a matter of days – and sounded the alarm about the questionable readiness of local governments for such disasters.

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A paramedic cools his face with water after dropping off a patient in Banpur, Uttar Pradesh, on June 17.Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

They will have to learn fast: India is among the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Even under optimistic heating scenarios – which assume more significant global emissions reduction than we’re currently on track for – India will be subject to intense heatwaves that could put millions at risk in the coming decades.

Beyond the immediate human costs, climate change could also undermine India’s ambitions to become the next global superpower. Where analysts once questioned whether China could get rich before it got too old, India’s dilemma is whether it can grow the economy and lift enough people out of poverty before it becomes too hot.

“Extreme heatwaves can have a huge impact on GDP,” said Ronita Bardhan, an expert on climate-related heat stress who runs the Sustainable Design Group at the University of Cambridge. “If India is to meet the economic targets it’s promising, they cannot be oblivious to climate impacts.”

In a paper earlier this year, Dr. Bardhan and two other researchers warned that more than 90 per cent of India could face extreme heatwaves in the near future, with temperatures projected to “cross the survivability limit for a healthy human resting in the shade by 2050.”

“Due to the unprecedented burdens on public health, agriculture, and other socio-economic and cultural systems,” the study said, “climate change-induced heatwaves in India can hinder or reverse the country’s progress” in reaching the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, which measure progress on things such as eliminating poverty and promoting education.

While the worst effects are still to come, the situation in much of India is already increasingly dire, said Avantika Goswami, the program manager for climate change at the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). Last year, there was an extreme weather event recorded almost every day in the country, from heatwaves and cyclones to flooding and landslides, CSE data shows.

A boy in New Delhi plays in a flooded residential area on the Yamuna River this past July. Climate change has made the Indian subcontinent's monsoon season more unpredictable than usual. Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images
Maharashtra state has seen every kind of extreme weather this year. In drought-stricken Gangongdwadi on May 27, people draw water from a mostly dry well; in Raigad district on July 20, relatives comfort a woman after a landslide washed away houses and trapped loved ones under debris. Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images; Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Canadians are familiar with the impact of disasters such as wildfires, but the economic costs of climate change do not just come from loss of property or life. Heatwaves drag down productivity and raise fatality rates for people working outside, a major factor in a country such as India, where some 40 per cent of the population works in the agricultural sector.

According to a World Bank report last year, as much as 75 per cent of India’s work force, about 380 million people, do heat-exposed labour – farming, mining and construction, but also sectors where air conditioning is insufficient, such as transport and manufacturing. India is “extremely vulnerable to job losses,” the report said, and by 2030 the country may account for 34 million of the projected 80 million global job losses as a result of heat stress-associated productivity decline.

McKinsey & Company estimates this could cost India as much as 4.5 per cent of its GDP, about US$250-billion, by the end of the decade.

Ms. Goswami said there are also knock-on effects for the wider work force: People doing office jobs are not vulnerable to extreme heat while inside, but they may depend on delivery drivers, security guards or cleaners who are.

Less than 10 per cent of Indian households have air conditioning, compared with more than 60 per cent in China and almost 90 per cent in the United States.

This has begun to change as prices for air conditioners have come down, but Dr. Bardhan warned that many units may not run in higher temperatures. Greater AC use would also put an enormous strain on the electricity grid, as has been seen in parts of China in recent years, causing blackouts.

One of India’s challenges in the climate crisis is to make sure electrical infrastructure, like these pylons in Mumbai, can handle higher demand from air conditioning in extreme heat. Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters
Others are exploring ways to stay powered off the grid. At a maternity hospital in Raichur, an employee of solar company Selco works with batteries fed from rooftop solar panels; in Solawata, villagers assemble lamps in a class run by the Barefoot Solar Project, which aims to bring clean energy to remote villages. Aijaz Rahi/AP; Rebecca Conway/Getty Images

While India’s carbon footprint is growing as the country industrializes – it accounts for about 7 per cent of global emissions – it remains far behind other countries on a per-capita basis, at 1.93 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person, compared with 14 in Canada and eight in similarly populous China. Cumulatively, India has emitted 70 per cent as much as the United Kingdom, a country 20 times smaller.

Reducing its own reliance on carbon – which New Delhi is doing, albeit not as fast as some would like – will therefore not be enough for India to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Like other vulnerable countries, it needs the world’s largest emitters, China and the United States, to take concerted action.

India will also need assistance in adapting to a hotter world, particularly if the effects of a changing climate drag down economic growth. It has been a leading advocate for climate equity and green finance, which would see the richer countries responsible for most historical emissions assist developing countries in their response.

New Delhi has sought to use its G20 presidency to push this agenda, with Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav writing in July that “no single nation can address environmental challenges in isolation.” But a meeting of G20 climate ministers in July – the hottest month on record – failed to reach a consensus, with negotiators complaining of wrecking tactics by China and Saudi Arabia during the talks.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will get a second chance to raise the issue at a leaders’ summit in September, but with a multitude of other priorities facing the bloc, it’s unclear how much progress can be made.

“The Indian ministries have been trying their best to make sure these conversations are being had,” Ms. Goswami said. “But I don’t have a lot of hope for the G20.”

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