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Climate Change and Climate Variability

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“Climate Change” is defined by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is the multilateral treaty for international coordinated action to address climate change, in its Article 1, as “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods”.

On the contrary, ‘Climate change’ is defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[1] as a change in the state of the climate that can be identified by changes in the mean (and/or the variability), and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. Climate variability refers to variations in the mean state and other statistics (such as standard deviations, the occurrence of extremes, etc.) of the climate on all temporal and spatial scales beyond that of individual weather events. Variability may be due to natural internal processes within the climate system (internal variability), or to variations in natural or anthropogenic external forcing (external variability).

The UNFCCC thus makes a distinction between climate change attributable to human activities altering the atmospheric composition and climate variability attributable to natural causes.

Global GHG emissions due to human activities have grown since pre-industrial times, with an increase of 70% between 1970 and 2004 (IPCC). Hence, primarily, the multilateral deliberations and negotiations and subsequent actions to address climate change by various countries revolves around the concept of climate change attributable to human activities.

Importance of Climate Change

Climate Change has now emerged as an important environmental problem and is attracting attention at the highest levels both domestically and internationally. The issue is no longer an academic debate or a scientific curiosity. According to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), over the century, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide increased from a pre-industrial value of 278 parts per million to 379 parts per million in 2005, and the average global temperature rose by 0.740C. Thus, the message isthat climate change is for real and humans are very likely to be causing it. The projections further indicate that global warming will continue and accelerate. As such, climate change represents additional stress on ecological and socio-economic systems that are already facing tremendous pressure due to rapid economic development.

Increasing levels of fossil fuel burning and land use changes have emitted, and are continuing to emit, greenhouse gases (GHG) (mainly carbon dioxide [CO2], methane, and nitrous oxide) into the earth’s atmosphere. This increasing level of emissions of greenhouse gases has caused a rise in the amount of heat from the sun trapped in the earth’s atmosphere, heat that would normally be radiated back into space. This has led to the greenhouse effect, resulting in climate change.

The major characteristics of climate change are rise in average global temperature, ice cap melting, changes in precipitation, and increase in ocean temperature.

With climate change, the type, frequency, and intensity of extreme events, floods, and droughts are expected to increase. Climate change is very likely to have a major impact on human and natural systems throughout the world including for India. Hence addressing climate change is a major challenge in terms of policies and resources needed to address it at domestic and international levels. The efforts needed to address the climate change problem include mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions on the one hand and adaptation, i.e. building of capacities to cope with the adverse impacts of climate change on various sectors of the society and economy on the other.

Climate Change and India

The worldwide emissions of GHGs have increased in the last 200 years or so, with the largest increases coming from industrialized nations. The scientists attribute the global problem of climate change not to the current GHG emissions but to the stock of historical GHG emissions. Most of the countries, particularly the industrialized countries, having large current emissions, are also the largest historic emitters and the principal contributors to climate change. A relatively small number of such countries are responsible for the largest chunk of the stock of global GHG emissions.

As far as India is concerned, its per capita emissions are much lower compared to those of the developed countries. India’s per capita CO2 emissions were 1.7 tons in 2009 compared to 18.4 in Australia, 17.3 in USA, 8.6 in Japan, 7.7 in U.K and 5.8 in China(Source: World Bank data base).

Various studies (the prominent being the National Communication by the Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India) reveal that India, with its delicate ecosystem, diverse terrain, rich biodiversity, and long coastlines is extremely vulnerable to climatic variations. Several studies indicate that India may suffer from long-term adverse impacts of climate change. India’s huge mass of poor people, with few means to weather the possible climate change impacts, exacerbates its vulnerability. It puts additional stress on its socio-economic fabric, making adaptation strategies important for this country. However, India is not entirely lacking in efforts to put in place climate and weather induced adaptation strategies. Given her extreme climate sub-zones and volatile weather, these have been embedded into the plan and policy matrix for decades.

Government of India has also proposed to set up the National Institute for Climate Change Studies and Actions (NICCSA) under Climate Change Action Programme (CCAP) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests with a view to carry out analytical studies of scientific, environmental, economic development and technological issues related to climate change.

Established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environment Programme, the IPCC surveys world-wide scientific and technical literature and publishes assessment reports that are widely recognized as the most credible existing sources of information on climate change. The IPCC also works on methodologies and responds to specific requests from the UNFCCC's subsidiary bodies. The IPCC is independent of the UNFCCC.


  4. Economic Survey 2011-12, Government of India

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