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Even half a degree of warming matters for South Asia’s urban poor

Md Mahmud Hasan Tuhin

This blog by Aditi Paul of CDKN Asia reflects on the revelations in the IPCC’s 1.5°C Special Report and its implications, including key messages for cities. This blog as originally published on the CDKN website on 11 October 2018.

The rising human cost of global warming

Ramachandran, in the town of Aluva, India suffered an inundated house for days this August due to uncharacteristically heavy rainfall and catastrophic Kerala floods. Ram Lal, from the landslide-stricken hills of Nepal, had to leave his village and move to Kathmandu after his farm land was overcome with mud. Rahamul Rnai, from Bangladesh’s delta region, was forced to leave his increasingly saltwater-encroached and unworkable farm to take shelter in the crowded city of Dhaka. There are many similar stories of climate impacts and displacement in South Asia – of people living on the frontlines of climate change.*

The number of people in South Asian cities impacted or displaced by extreme climate events is increasing. This is set to continue as the planet’s average temperature rises. At current emissions rates, average temperatures will rise to 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 – says the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. Temperatures today are already 1°C above pre-industrial levels. The report forewarns policy-makers across all levels of governance of the far-reaching and inescapable implications of sea-level rise, frequent and extreme events, loss of biodiversity, and a slowdown in human development across the world, even with this half a degree rise in temperature.

There is still time to avert the worst

Although the Special Report paints a grim picture of the widespread impacts of warming beyond 1.5°C, there are more postitive notes. Dr Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi climate change adaptation expert, concluded in his interview to the Dhaka Tribune: “The IPCC special report on 1.5°C reinforces that there is still time to keep global temperature below 1.5°C. But the time is running out quickly. So all efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases must be redoubled.”

The sentiment was echoed by the French Minister of State for ecological and inclusive transition, Ms. Brune Poirson, while attending and co-chairing the first assembly of the International Solar Alliance (ISA), in New Delhi, India. She told the Times of India: “Once the electricity sector is fully decarbonised, essentially two key emitting sectors will remain – transport and agriculture. It will require a major technological breakthrough to make zero-emission vehicles affordable and profound changes in the farming process.”

Coordinating lead author of the Special Report, Aromar Revi from Indian Institute for Human Settlements, shared a similar view with the Indian daily newspaper, Business Standards “For a country like India… planning according to under 1.5oC is an opportunity, as it presents a chance to develop a more sustainable energy industry, agriculture and manage cities”.

These responses suggest that countries are now looking forward to tackling societal sources of greenhouse gas emissions with effective, near-term sectoral policies.

Key messages from the 1.5°C Special Report for cities

Joyashree Roy, professor of economics at Jadavpur University and co-author of the IPCC’s report, tells Hindustan Times: that “the most affected areas will be mega cities, coastal areas, high mountain and small island regions. There will also be heat stress in cities and air quality will deteriorate due to high fossil fuel use.”

The IPCC has high scientific confidence that heat-related morbidity and mortality is already occurring as a result of climate change, and any increase in global warming will affect human health. There is very high confidence that risks will be lower at 1.5°C than at 2°C for heat-related morbidity and mortality, particularly in urban areas because of urban heat islands. At 1.5°C, twice as many megacities could become heat-stressed, exposing more than 350 million more people to deadly heat by 2050 under mid-range population growth.

The Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of the Special Report states that “rapid and far-reaching transitions in… urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings) systems ” is required, but it is not specific about what this might look like in practice. The SPM states that “technical measures and practices enabling deep emissions reductions include various energy efficiency options” could limit emissions to 1.5°C, as well as “changes in land and urban planning practices” and “deeper emissions reductions in transport and buildings”. City governments are thus left to interpret the implications of the findings for their cities.

The Special Report also suggests adaptation options in urban areas such as green infrastructure, sustainable land use and planning, and sustainable water management, and highlights that measures are effective when local, regional and national governments are aligned with each other. Furthermore, the report recommends “education, information, and community approaches, including those that are informed by indigenous knowledge and local knowledge, can accelerate the wide scale behaviour changes” needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C .

However, the document also notes that “economic, institutional and socio-cultural barriers may inhibit these urban and infrastructure system transitions, depending on national, regional and local circumstances, capabilities and the availability of capital”.

What can cities do in response to these findings?

Emani Kumar, the Executive Director of ICLEI South Asia and Regional Director for CDKN Asia, responds to the IPCC’s findings as follows: “The magnitude of impacts in cities will certainly be high due to the significant exposure of infrastructure and high concentration of people in cities”.

Mr. Kumar points out that “critical technologies such as energy-efficient appliances, insulation using natural materials, local renewables, smart land-use planning to make cities more walkable and non-motorised can play an important role in the transition.” He further emphasises that “even though sometimes it’s challenging to integrate governance, technology and finance at national or sub-national levels, it is critical now that cities lead in co-creating collaborative governance systems, giving space and voice to all, and identifying nature-based resilient solutions, while encouraging circular economy and adopting sustainable procurement practices.”

*all names changed for privacy

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