The United Nations’ 27th Conference of Parties(COP27) is currently underway in Egypt, from November 6th to 18th. Nations from across the world are discussing ways and means to tackle the problem of climate change at this congregation. Climate change is a real and present danger and every nook and corner of the world is facing a climate crisis at present. Recent years have shown that climate change has not spared Chennai either.
As countries at COP27 discuss how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or find mechanisms for Loss and Damage reparations, or create new institutions for ‘Climate Finance’, how do we relate these discussions to what we see around us in Chennai? How do we connect the dots to understand why each of these terms is not just a part of the usual global discourse, but extremely relevant to the future of Chennai and its residents?
Recently, the civic body released a draft of the Chennai Climate Action Plan (CCAP) with a view to tackling the issues stemming from changes to the environment.
However, there is an obvious lacuna in making the language used in climate change discourse accessible and relatable to the average Chennai resident. The absence of such an understanding could affect the city’s response to the changes it is to see due to climate change.
How do climate change terms relate to Chennai?
- Climate change
Let’s start with the basics: ‘climate change’ itself. The United Nations defines it as ‘long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns’, driven largely by human activity, primarily by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas.
“If you ask a person who has lived in Chennai for more than 50 years, they will say that Chennai has never been hotter,” says Shanthi, an environmental sciences teacher at a private school, adding that this shift in temperature and other climatic conditions in Chennai can be seen as direct manifestations of climate change. “They will also say that they have hardly seen the rains in Chennai to be as erratic and heavy as now.”
According to the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), an environmental think tank, Chennai could experience a moderate temperature rise of 0.2 degrees C in the next three decades. Also, the 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states that Chennai is highly exposed to climate change.
- Greenhouse gases (GHGs)
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, greenhouse gases are those gases that trap heat within the blanket of the atmosphere. Major greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane and water vapour. These gases are emitted by industries, vehicles that run on petroleum and its byproducts, and even landfills.
“The most prominent cause of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels,” says Vishvaja Sambath, an environmental health researcher. “This has led to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.”
“Imagine you are stuck inside a car with no air-conditioning on a typical hot day in Chennai. The sun’s rays seep through the glass windows, and the interior of the car gets heated up. There is no vent or way for the heat to escape. In other words, the glass has trapped the heat. Now, imagine the glass to be greenhouse gases, and the car to be Chennai,” describes Shanthi, adding that GHGs also contribute to climate change in Chennai, by warming up the earth.
Chennai has two major dump yards in Kodungaiyur and Perungudi where waste is still being dumped to this day, despite waste segregation rules. A huge amount of methane is emitted from these landfills, and research points out that methane can trap 80 times the heat carbon dioxide can.
The CCAP draft claims that 14.38 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent of greenhouse gases were emitted in 2018 in Chennai.
To cut emissions, the CCAP plans to run only electric buses for the public by 2050, since fuelled transport accounted for 16% of GHG emissions in 2018.
“The initial priority must be to introduce more buses than electric buses. If the amount for buying buses is finite, then we must focus on the former than the latter, since an electric bus costs around three times a regular bus,” says Daniel Robinson, a climate change specialist and State Lead of ICLEI, an international NGO that promotes sustainable development in local governments.
- Global warming
Wallace Smith Broecker popularised the term global warming when he published the paper “Climatic Change: Are we on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” Global warming is the gradual increase in the average temperature of the surface of the earth and oceans due to human and natural activity.
Many people conflate global warming and climate change.
“If climate change is the disease, then global warming is one symptom of that disease,” says Vishvaja. In other words, climate change can be an effect of global warming or an increase in temperatures among other causes.
Research shows that global warming can fuel extreme rainfall events during the northeast monsoon in Chennai.
- Climate-induced disasters
Disasters being made more severe and rampant due to climate change are called climate-induced disasters. According to Oxfam, rising temperatures contribute to rising sea levels, which in turn cause more intense storms, precipitation and floods.
“These disasters do not include just floods. It can include droughts and forest fires too,” says Sangeetha Sivadasini, a climate reality leader who is involved in Green Tamil Nadu Mission activities. “When an area with a lot of water gets heated up due to increasing temperatures, there is a chance of increased rains, which can cause floods. But in a water-scarce area, it is going to cause drought.”
“Earlier, Chennai used to experience severe floods every 10 to 15 years. Currently, Chennai is experiencing severe floods every other year, at least,” says Sangeetha.
- Sea-level rise
According to IPCC, sea-level rise refers to the elevation of sea level at a global or a local level, due to the melting of glaciers or the expansion of water because of the warming of the oceans, among other reasons.
By 2027, 100 metres of the coast in Chennai can get submerged due to a projected 7 cm rise in the sea level, says a study.
“Imja glacier near Nepal is where fresh water originates for various Asian countries including India. Due to global warming, the glacier has melted, increasing the water levels. This will eventually drain into the sea, raising the sea level,” says Sangeetha.
CCAP also predicts the impact of sea level rise on physical infrastructure. “Metro rail project is being planned in OMR. But CCAP itself says that the area will become a part of the coastline in another 70-80 years,” says Daniel.
CCAP projects that 69% of Chennai Metro Rail Limited’s (CMRL) infrastructure is to be inundated by 2100.
- Loss and Damage
UNFCCC refers to ‘loss and damage’ as the negative impacts due to anthropogenic climate change. It can lead to irreversible destruction or deterioration of biodiversity, ecosystems and people’s health and livelihoods, among other things.
The sea-level rise in Chennai may cause ‘damage’ to 17% of slums within the area of Greater Chennai Corporation in the 2100s, according to the CCAP.
Climate change solutions and their Chennai context
- Carbon neutrality
UNEP defines carbon neutrality as a situation where the measured amount of carbon released is equivalent to the amount sequestered or offset, thus achieving net zero carbon emissions. In terms of a simple equation, carbon neutrality is achieved when
Carbon emission = Carbon absorption
For instance, a factory in Chennai releases carbon emissions, through production and transport, among other means. But if the factory contributes to carbon offset projects like planting trees, and the trees absorb the same amount of carbon as the factory emits, then the factory may be said to be carbon-neutral.
Carbon neutrality is a goal of CCAP by 2050. It states, “Think development- Think carbon neutrality.”
“Carbon neutrality is a green flag for industries and companies to go about their businesses and emit as usual in Chennai because it does not address the source of emissions. Carbon neutrality is not going to beat climate change in Chennai,” opines Vishvaja.
- Climate resilience
Climate resilience is the ability to plan for extreme climate events and respond to them, as per the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions, an environmental policy think tank based in the USA.
“You stretch or shake an object, and it comes back to its original shape or position. That is resilience,” says Prabhakaran Veeraarasu from Poovulagin Nanbargal, an environmental collective. When climate change affects a place, for instance, then that place must recover and come back to its original state. This can happen only when a city predicts, prepares and responds to the effects of climate change, by having mechanisms, policies and infrastructure in place.
Shanthi states an example of climate resilience that Chennai can adopt. “Water shortage and floods are common occurrences in Chennai during summers and monsoons respectively. Increasing temperatures due to climate change are only going to increase water scarcity in the summers. Anticipating and preparing for water scarcity includes setting up more recharge wells apart from focusing only on stormwater drains. The latter does not replenish the ground water table.”
CCAP aims to achieve climate resilience by 2050.
“The important question to ask is whether we are climate-proofing our investments in infrastructure [of Chennai]. All infrastructure must be checked if they are resilient to climate impact in the future, and this can be across sectors,” says Daniel.
He gives another example: “Chennai has electricity even when there are heavy rains, unlike earlier times when there used to be power cuts. This is because we have introduced underground EB cables [which are resilient].”
- Climate finance
UNFCCC refers to climate finance as finance that is used for reducing emissions, improving carbon sinks and climate resilience towards humans and ecological systems.
Tamil Nadu government issued Rs. 5 crores as equity for the non-profit Tamil Nadu Green Climate Company to focus on climate change adaptation, mitigation and resilience in Chennai among other places in the state. This is an example of climate finance.
- Climate change mitigation
According to UNEP, climate change mitigation refers to “…the efforts to reduce or prevent the emission of greenhouse gases. Mitigation can mean using new technologies and renewable energies, making older equipment more energy efficient, or changing management practices or consumer behaviour..”
An example of a mitigation measure proposed for Chennai is to reduce the emissions from the city’s petroleum-fuelled MTC buses by converting the entire fleet to run on electricity by 2050 as per the CCAP.
- Climate change adaptation
Climate change adaptation refers to the practice of learning and adjusting to living and coping with the effects of climate change, according to UNFCCC.
In Chennai, slum-dwellers increasingly use asbestos, which increases the impact of heat stress. CCAP plans to retrofit their houses with heat-resilient materials to adapt to changes caused by climate change.
Climate change impact on Chennaiites
Eco-anxiety refers to people’s fear of climate change which may affect their lives. However, it is not a medical disease, but the fear associated with climate crises can pave way for other psychological illnesses.
“A Chennai resident who has witnessed the 2015 floods can be fearful of rains and floods, especially when exacerbated by climate change,” says Shanthi. “A person can battle their eco-anxiety by asking the right questions to people, who make decisions related to environment and climate change,” says Vishvaja.
- Climate-induced health hazards
Extreme climatic events could affect food systems, apart from increasing the risk of zoonotic, food-, water- and vector-borne diseases, according to the World Health Organisation.
Researchers cite that climate change can lead to an increase in communicable diseases. “Some insects breed in warmer climates, which can increase the spread of some diseases,” says Sangeetha.
In a previous article, we saw how climate change has influenced the spread of tuberculosis cases in Chennai.
“Only if you understand the terms can you weigh the gravity of climate change. Only after that, you can participate in climate action. Drafting policies to combat climate emergencies without relating to people is not a fruitful effort,” says Shanthi.