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With the El Niño phenomenon still developing, the Indian meteorological department declared a 29 per cent chance monsoons this year would be "below normal". But unseasonal weather (including both rainfall and temperature variations) might have already led to a loss of 1-2 million tonnes of India’s wheat crop. It is such unseasonality and unpredictability that is at the heart of the climate crisis. The paths to sustainable development are already challenged by repeated shocks. But they do not account for climate variability. This must — and can – change if we let nature show the way.
Climate variability manifests itself in several ways. The most visible is extreme weather. There is evidence of the rise in extreme weather events across the world (India is seeing heat waves, floods hit California and Auckland, and Cyclone Freddy wreaked havoc in southern Africa). Analysis by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) finds that three-quarters of Indian districts are already exposed to extreme climate events.
Climate-related disasters impact the economic infrastructure and household assets of lower-middle-income and low-income economies far more. Between 1998 and 2017, these economies lost 1.14 and 1.17 per cent of their GDP respectively due to such disasters. The comparative impact for high-income economies was just 0.41 per cent of GDP.
Climate change impacts water as well. As the Global Commission on the Economics of Water recently reported, global warming is adding about 7 per cent of moisture for each 1°C of temperature rise. Land use change is also impacting precipitation patterns and how water gets apportioned between green water (soil moisture and water vapour) as well as blue water (runoff/liquid) flows. These changes can wreak havoc on agriculture, industry, cities and built infrastructure, not to mention their impact on food security. In turn, drought-related forest fires and loss of wetlands deplete key stores of carbon.
Every USD 1 invested in wetland and ridge restoration could save USD 7 in avoided damages. By this measure, more than USD 50 billion worth of damages against extreme flood events could have been saved in the past 20 years.
The response to the climate crisis is not an emissions mitigation challenge alone. It is about putting the vulnerable at the heart of climate response. For this, we must build resilience to catch the fall, recover beyond the status quo, and prioritise nature-based solutions.
Resilience to catch the fall
It starts with creating a cushion for the vulnerable to fall back on. Disaster relief is not enough. What we need is a global mechanism — a Global Resilience Reserve Fund (GRRF) — to increase resilience and allow economies to bounce back after climate shocks hit above a specified threshold. Such a fund could be capitalised using the IMF's Special Drawing Rights and would assume the first loss. Pooling risks across geographies could help to lower the peaks of risk curves.
Recovering beyond the status quo
Catching the fall and minimising climate damage is just the start. In order to bounce back, countries must be able to go beyond the current status quo. For this, we must understand the importance of the recovery of ecosystems and communities after a disaster event. Ecosystem recovery helps to restore ecological balance and avert loss and damage from future disasters whilst providing opportunities for adaptation-mitigation co-benefits. For instance, women's self-help groups in the Puri district in India's Odisha state have started tackling the impacts of extreme cyclones by planting a belt of Casuarina trees along the coastline. Combined with state-run early warning systems and community-run storm shelters, the loss of lives to supercyclones has dramatically fallen in Odisha.
Also on the Forum Network: A Shared Concern: To act on climate, India needs to focus on health by Shweta Narayan, International Climate and Health Campaigner, Health Care Without Harm
Health care systems should not be viewed merely as providers of healthcare: they should be the foundation for protecting against the health effects of climate change.
We must also understand the value of prevention. Every USD 1 invested in wetland and ridge restoration could save USD 7 in avoided damages. By this measure, more than USD 50 billion worth of damages against extreme flood events could have been saved in the past 20 years.
But this does not happen because of persistent market failures. There is very limited accounting of uncertainty associated with implementing nature-based and community-led solutions. The market often fails to capture the factors that result in stronger community participation and, therefore, discounts the returns on possible investments. When cost-benefit calculations are restricted to grey infrastructure, GDP grows when a concrete flood embankment is built but not when the mangrove in the same area is preserved.
Currently, less than 5 per cent of climate finance goes towards dealing with climate impacts, and less than 1 per cent goes to coastal protection, infrastructure and disaster risk management. Broadening the definition of infrastructure to include natural ecosystems offers an opportunity to deploy more sustainable and climate-resilient responses.
Let nature show the way
Nature-based solutions (NbS) help with climate regulation, water management, biodiversity conservation, soil fertility, and offer economic benefits to communities. Many natural ecosystems, such as wetlands, mangroves, and forests, provide valuable services that reduce the risk of disasters. For example, mangroves can act as a buffer against storm surges. According to IUCN, USD 57 billion in flooding damages are averted by mangroves in China, India, Mexico, the US, and Viet Nam annually. One immediate opportunity is for the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (with 31 member countries) to mainstream NbS in its programmes, particularly via the Initiative for Resilient Island States.
Developing a common assessment framework to evaluate NbS is the need of the hour if more public and private capital is to be directed towards sustainable solutions.
Furthermore, climate-smart and sustainable agriculture practices can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, build soil health, and increase resilience to climate change impacts. Practices like agroforestry and conservation agriculture also have the potential to reduce the risk of disasters such as floods and landslides. In cities, building green infrastructure such as green roofs, rain gardens, and permeable pavements can help to reduce the risk of flooding, improve water quality and mitigate the urban heat island effect as temperatures rise. Developing a common assessment framework to evaluate NbS is the need of the hour if more public and private capital is to be directed towards sustainable solutions.
Community-led natural resource management gives local communities agency in decision-making whilst tailoring the interventions to their needs. In the Ambojwadi settlement in Mumbai, youth groups have marked the areas prone to flooding that need mangrove conservation and have formed first-response teams for disasters. In the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, a rural women’s collective in Almora district now works closely with the state forest department officials to fight the increasing amount of forest fires. These are the faces of climate resilience which are not just of climate vulnerability. Rather than treat their efforts as anecdotal or episodic, such communities across the world deserve support that is both environmentally friendly and sustainable over the long term.
Learn more by reading the IEA report on LiFE Lessons from India and check out also OECD work on Strengthening resilience for a changing climate
This report examines how India has integrated several policies in its energy transition strategy that are aligned with the LiFE initiative, highlighting the potential for behavioural change and consumption choices to help advance energy transitions globally.
And watch CEEW’s award-winning Faces of Climate Resilience documentary series
Faces of Climate Resilience captures the voices of climate vulnerable populations in 16 stories from 5 Indian states. The project, in partnership with India Climate Collaborative, Edelgive Foundation, and Drokpa Films, strives to make climate change more tangible through the lived experiences of people. The focus is on how individuals and communities are responding to the climate crisis. They are embracing nature-based solutions and traditional wisdom. They are mobilising collective action and collaborating with non-profit organisations and local government officials to build climate resilience.