Heat waves sweeping India, energy demand rising: Are we caught in a Catch-22?

We need technologies to cool houses, but also to cool areas where people can congregate and take shelter.

In Ray Bradbury’s iconic sci-fi story, The Long Rain, a group of men from Earth are driven to slow but imminent insanity because of ceaseless rains on the planet Venus. The rain never stops, drumming on heads, causing fungal blooms and destroying food rations. Nature and climate in the story need to be accepted for what it is, and it is the people who have to adjust.

Environmental extremities or apocalypses are lodestones of more than a few futuristic sci-fiction settings, in fact.

Heat waves sweeping India, energy demand rising: Are we caught in a Catch-22?

Melting glaciers as a result of climate change. Image: NASA Goddard

In many ways, that grim future seems to be here. A clutch of studies demonstrates how badly we are doing in terms of climate action. A new report by the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration predicts that human civilisation will be endangered or declining by 2050, due to climate extremities, and subsequent ecosystem collapse. Another new energy report by BP finds that due to extremities in weather — be it hotter or cooler days — energy demand is going up. This has led to the fastest rise in emissions in 2018, since 2011.

For India, these findings are of special importance. It is easier to appreciate the enormity of the problem because we are currently in the middle of a drought and a heatwave. Temperatures have touched 50-degree Celcius in parts of India. It is not just the intensity of the heat, but also how long it is lasting: we have had three heat waves in India in 2019 already. Four pilgrims recently died due to the heat. Fights have broken out over water, leading to injuries and death. We are in a Catch-22 situation. As days get hotter, we will need more cooling. Not only that, we will need more cooling for larger sections of the population. And if cooling through grids is not available, dirty options like diesel generators will be availed of.

In the Indian context, cooling, (rather than heating) is a more immediate need. With a large, vulnerable population exposed to climate vagaries, cooling is also a social justice need. We need to plan for cooling at a larger scale — but this ought to be done without adding to carbon emissions. Here are a few things the country can consider:

Cooling community areas

Firstly, cooling should be integrated as a community-level idea. We need technologies not just to cool houses but also to cool areas where people can congregate and take shelter in. Apart from energy-based cooling, buildings will require green architecture — ventilation, rainwater harvesting, and locally sourced material as opposed to glass facades.

Representational image.

Windmills are a good source of renewable energy but they also kill a lot of bids.

Diversify energy sources

Secondly, a big question we face is that of the energy source. Whatever technologies we choose require to be fuelled by clean sources of power. This is what the BP report hints at: while the world (and India) has taken steps towards renewable energy, this is not commensurate with scaling down of conventional and polluting energy sources. India is faced with a curious quandary. A 2015 Niti Ayog report says that our installed capacity for generating power is higher than our peak demand. Several times, electricity is not generated (even if the demand exists) because of the high price of imported coal.

Increase dependence on Renewable Energy

Importing coal is not just an expensive proposition because the prices are volatile and unregulated, it also compromises our energy security. We can’t depend forever on other countries for our energy needs. The way out is clear—we need to ramp up indigenous, renewable energy. Wind and solar are the obvious way ahead, and they need to be planned along with wildlife impact assessments. Both require land, but new technologies to mitigate impacts are also emerging.

Birds pant like dogs in the heat. A Black Kite feeling the heat in Delhi. Image credit: Neha Sinha

Birds pant like dogs in the heat. A Black Kite feeling the heat in Delhi. Image credit: Neha Sinha

Wind and solar energy generation units can’t be a land grab in the wilderness. Wind energy kills flying animals en masse. Now, new windmills with protracted blades are emerging, which are unlikely to harm birds, bats and any other wildlife. And solar panels don’t need to stretch over vast areas of scrubland, taking over precious wildlife habitat and wildernesses. They can be laid on roads and rooftops. Biogas too is a vastly untapped solution.

We also shouldn’t look away from nature-based solutions.

The Ahmedabad heat action plan asks for increasing green cover in hotspot areas like roadsides. But I wonder why more heat islands don’t include nature as the solution to climate stress. A mature Jamun tree is colloquially known as an “AC” because of its cooling shade. Trees reduce the greenhouse effect in cars, and may also reduce transport-cooling needs, depending on how shaded your areas are.

When a stream becomes a trickle: Chital deer crossing a dry river bed for drinking scarce water in Central India. Image credit: Neha Sinha

When a stream becomes a trickle: Chital deer crossing a dry river bed for drinking scarce water in Central India. Image credit: Neha Sinha

Are science fiction writers like prophets? 

I have always felt they were. They set their conflicts in fictional times when the human had little control over the environment — be it in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster, or an apocalyptic world laid waste by generations of greed. In many ways, I feel we have blinders on, the kind that are precursors to disaster. The United States is amongst the world’s top carbon emitters. Yet US President Donald Trump, when most recently asked about climate change, pulled an old US manoeuvre. That of blaming others; the blackened pot calling the kettle black. He said that the US has a clean climate, but India and China were not taking their climate responsibility seriously. He also said, characteristically, that China and the US ‘are not far from each other’, and China is full of pollution (suggesting the latter was polluting the earth which US is a witness to.) Not a word on what the US will do to reduce climate impact.

As it stands today, nothing much has changed. Politicians are still talking dirty, and growth is still spewing carbon. Instead of looking at this as a deadlock and doomsday scenario (though it’s tempting to do so), I hope we can take the heat under our collar as a clean opportunity.

The author is with the Bombay Natural History Society. Views expressed are personal. She tweets at @nehaa_sinha.

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