The country, which was coming off its warmest March in more than a century, has faced the hottest April temperatures on record while 70 per cent of its electricity is generated by the dirtiest source: coal.

By Pablo Rivas/El Salto diario

South Asians are one of the groups of people who have historically contributed the least to the global climate emergency. Yet they are among those who will suffer most – and are already suffering – some of the harshest consequences of the crises. In the words of Indian Institute for Human Settlements researcher and senior scientist at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Chandni Singh, on what has been happening for weeks in India and Pakistan: “This heatwave is testing the limits of human survivability”.

The figures for the heatwave – or heatwaves, there have been three episodes – are shocking for the times: peaks of 47°C in parts of northern and northwestern and central India, with the highest temperatures in at least 122 years since weather records began to be kept in the affected areas.

This is a phenomenon that has also affected Pakistan, with records more than six weeks well above average for this time of year. Some areas of Pakistan reached 48ºC, as announced by the Pakistan Meteorological Department, with several large cities experiencing temperatures above 44ºC for a week, while in neighbouring India a megacity like New Delhi, with a metropolitan area home to nearly 30 million people, has suffered temperatures above 40ºC for seven consecutive days.

In total, more than 1 billion people were affected by extreme heat, which the United Nations warned would have “multiple cascading impacts not only on human health, but also on ecosystems, agriculture and water and energy supply systems, as well as key sectors of the economy”. All this with another climate milestone all too close: March was the hottest month in India since 1901.


Climate change is behind the Asian weather crisis. This is what Singh, one of India’s most renowned experts on climate emergencies, said in response to doubts raised by some media about the origin of the episode, although the statement had to be taken “with nuances”, according to the IPCC researcher.

The doubts were attributed to a “precious but unfortunately easily misinterpreted statement” by the World Health Organisation on 29 March, in which the organisation’s secretary general, Petteri Taalas, indicated that “it is premature to attribute the extreme heat in India and Pakistan solely to climate change”, although in the same text he later added: “However, it is consistent with what we expect in a changing climate. Heat waves are more frequent and intense and start earlier than in the past”.

To set the record straight, Singh referred to the words of another IPCC scientist, the German climatologist Friederike Otto: “Whether today’s most powerful heatwaves could have occurred in a pre-industrial climate […] is fast becoming an obsolete question. The next frontier for attribution science will be to inform adaptive decision-making in the face of unprecedented future heat”.

More it affects, more it burns

“The truth behind these heatwaves is very clear: fossil fuels did this,” denounced Namrata Chowdhary, head of Public Engagement at the international environmental organisation The IPCC had already predicted that this area of the planet, one of the most densely populated, would be one of the hardest hit by the climate emergency. The latest report from the UN agency makes even clearer the path to take if the planet is to be saved from an average warming of more than 1.5ºC: accelerate the abandonment of fossil fuels, making greenhouse gas emissions peak in 2025 and decrease by 43% in 2030 compared to 2019, and by 84% in 2050.

But the paradox is in the places that have contributed the least and are suffering the most from the consequences of climate change. Today, almost 70% of India’s electricity is generated by the dirtiest source that contributes the most to the climate emergency: coal.

In fact, heatwaves like the one India and Pakistan have experienced increase consumption, generating more emissions. And if coal supply problems and power outages were already affecting India after the post-Covid era, now the country has faced an unprecedented early heatwave with scarce reserves of this fossil fuel, which has amplified power outages and has put on the table the need to accelerate the country’s energy transition, as well as to diversify its energy mix.

The challenge is greater, considering that this is the region of the planet where both energy demand and industrial production will grow the most in the coming decades, according to UN forecasts. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the last climate summit, set a date for the country to achieve zero emissions by 2070, two decades later than what the EU and the US are planning, and one after China. The country’s speed in reducing its emissions will be decisive for the planet: India is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the United States.

Modi announced at COP26 that 50% of India’s electricity would be generated by renewable sources by 2050, increasing its capacity to 500 GW by that date. However, the technology challenges of integrating renewables into India’s large electricity grid are daunting and cast doubt on this milestone.

Low reserves

Coal supply problems are critical today. According to data compiled by the Associated Press from the Central Electricity Authority of India, 94 of the country’s 165 coal-fired power plants currently have very low reserves of the fuel, a problem that will directly affect the welfare of millions of people and the Indian economy.

Faced with supply problems, the Indian government recently approved that the high cost of imported coal can be passed on from the power companies to the utilities, which for Bob Burton, editor of the coal industry newsletter CoalWire, “sums up the contradiction of some countries that are likely to be hardest hit by global warming and are still going ahead with new coal projects: they will suffer from a warmer climate and higher costs”.

Thus, South Asia is already on the front line of climate impacts today. As points out, “the IPCC’s recent climate impacts report predicts frequent temperature extremes and heat waves in Asia, especially in densely populated South Asian cities, where working conditions will worsen and working outdoors during the day will become dangerous”.

They urge southern leaders to take urgent action to reduce emissions that will hit them the hardest, and northern leaders to practice climate justice that requires them to finance the energy transition of a global south that is not primarily responsible for the climate crisis but is the main sufferer, a key sticking point at recent climate summits.

“Much of South Asia could become uninhabitable if temperature trends continue, which could lead to a large-scale humanitarian crisis,” added the international environmental organisation.

For the time being, a slight respite: the Indian Meteorological Department says no heatwave conditions are expected in the next four to five days in the northwest, central and eastern parts of the country, only in isolated pockets of Rajasthan and Haryana, although several regions of the country could still reach 44ºC.