Climate Change and India’s Traditional Lifestyle and Practices: Potential for Mitigation

~ By Satyendra Tripathi

When the world is on the edge due to the challenge of climate change, it becomes vital for nations to come together to understand its consequences and mitigate it with utmost priority. It is due to this that lifestyles, sustainability, and other factors that contribute to mitigating climate change have attracted a lot of attention in recent times.

Today climate change is acknowledged as one of the greatest challenges facing the global sustainability. The global mean temperatures have already risen by about 10C. Coinciding with the global temperature rise, Indian landmass has witnessed rapid warming in the last three decades like increase in heat waves, increase in precipitation rates. Further, climate data records have suggested an increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme events over India in the last five decades. Several researchers have noted an increasing trend in observed frequency of heavy precipitation events in different parts of India, and a decreasing trend in light rainfall events. A study by Fischer and Knutti concludes that the observed average global warming so far is responsible for three fourth (75%) of the daily heat extremes and 18% of the precipitation extremes. Thus, it is clear that the observed global warming of even 1°C is already impacting the physical environment and production systems in India and in other parts of the World. It is widely agreed by both the science and policy communities that the rise in global temperatures should not be allowed to exceed the dangerous threshold of 2°C, to avoid damage to sustained food production and ecosystem services. Fischer and Knutti further suggest that for a 2°C of warming the fraction of rainfall extremes attributable to human influence increases to a devastating 40% from the present 18%.

In December, 2015, 196 Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted the Paris Agreement at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris, France. The Paris Agreement adopted the ambitious goal of limiting warming to below 2°C and also, for the first time, agreed to pursue efforts to hold warming at 1.5°C. In line with the Paris Agreement till date 189 countries accounting for about 99% of the global GHG emissions have submitted their climate pledges to UNFCCC. India took a lead in the global effort to limit warming to safe levels by submitting a very ambitious climate pledge to UNFCCC.  India pledged:

  • To reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 to 35 percent by 2030 from 2005 level
  • To achieve about 40 percent cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel based energy resources by 2030 with the help of transfer of technology and low cost international finance including from Green Climate Fund (GCF).
  • To create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030

India’s climate pledge is in line with India’s long history and traditions of harmonious co-existence between human beings and nature. It is evidence that Indians have traditionally regarded fauna and flora of the globe as ‘part of their family’ and sustainability is part of Indian heritage and manifests itself in lifestyle and traditional practices. Indians represent a culture that calls our planet Mother Earth. Indian traditional knowledge, in fact, relates nature to the Gods, ensuring sustainable conservation practices. The concept of Dharma is pivotal to ancient modes of thinking and of living right from the dawn of human civilization. The very purpose of Dharma is to ensure sustainability of living beings and all those that contribute fundamentally to the cause of sustainability. Its philosophical bonding with nature and society are the guiding principle for harmonious societal awareness and exploration of shared values to strengthen co-existence.

Recent research of world’s top climate change scientists at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and Grantham Institute at Imperial College London clearly demonstrate that culture, tradition and lifestyle choices are strongly linked with climate change mitigation (and adaptation). According to Dr Woods of Imperial College London, “Our analysis clearly highlights that we can meet our 2°C target while maintaining good lifestyles and a prosperous economy – but the FT Climate Calculator tells us that to be successful the world needs to act now and transform the technologies, knowledge base and fuels we use and make smarter use of our land,”. Culture and traditional practices help the in climate change mitigation in the following ways, as simulated by the Global Calculator: –

  1. Life-style choices of:
  • Travel (passenger distance, freight distance, mode, occupancy, car ownership),
  • Homes (building size, temperature and hot water use, lighting and appliances, products lifespan and reuse, recycling), and
  • Diets (calories consumed, quantity of meat, type of meat)

      2. Land-use choices and efficiency:

  • afforestation, reforestation, deforestation and forest degradation, sacred groves, and other forestry related choices
  • land-use efficiency
  1. Demographics
  • total population, population growth rates
  • urban vs. rural population

Global mean temperature has already risen to 0.5-1oC compared to pre-industrial time. This warming already has adversely impact on climate, natural ecosystem, food production and hydrology. Many extreme events in recent past in Europe, Asia, North America and Africa, including the recent floods patterns in Chennai, Bombay, can potentially be linked to climate change. Also, recent heat wave impacts in northern parts of India cannot be ignored.  Therefore, there is a need for serious adaptation even to the ongoing impacts of climate change.

As things stand at present, various adaptation and mitigation measures are not on appropriate paths. Steady warming levels will have severe implications for food production, water resources and climate extremes. Thus, India where more than 700 million people mostly depending on climate sensitive sectors such as agriculture, fishery, forests, livestock etc., will be adversely impacted by climate impact. India will soon need a strategy to build resilience in ecosystems and in food production systems.

At the same time, traditional Indian beliefs and lifestyle can be potential elements could be adopted as one of practices of mitigating climate change. In addition, India should be prepared with enabling policies and institutions to benefit from the Global climate financial mechanism to promote transformation to sustainable energy and climate resilient development.

Satyendra Tripathi is a Research Fellow with India Foundation. The views expressed are his own. 

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