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Opinion

Himalayan climate change threatens regional stability. Can India help?

As the devastating floods in Pakistan showed, atmospheric pollutants are disturbing the Himalayan region's weather patterns – and local economies. But India has a pivotal opportunity to cut 'black carbon' emissions and minimize the damage.

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The majority of Indians, however, don’t live in scientific studies and statistics. They live life in line with the extreme seasons and their famous monsoon. Precipitation during the monsoon is vital to the health of the Himalayan glaciers, as well as the downstream region’s agriculture.

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Monsoons increasingly unpredictable

Yet climate data suggests the monsoon is becoming more unpredictable, translating to decreases in food production, scarcer water supplies, harsher cycles of flooding, and severe drought. Earlier this year, floods in Pakistan killed thousands and left millions homeless in one of the worst natural disasters the world has ever seen.

Over the past 50 years, according to data from the Indian Meteorological Department, the frequency and magnitude of extreme rainfall events has increased over central India during the monsoon, while moderate events have decreased.

This is a major problem. The moderate rainfall events are needed to feed crops and recharge aquifers, while extreme events often lead to flooding in both rural and urban areas. Scientific modeling suggests that the overall atmospheric circulation that drives the monsoon system is weakening, leading to extreme events early in the season, followed by increased droughts toward the end. Local rainfall records and ice core data also suggest a decrease in overall monsoon strength over the past century over the Himalayan region.

Science also confirms that the region is warming at two to three times the global average rate. Since 1900, the region’s average temperature has increased by 1.2 degrees Celsius, and most of this warming has occurred over the past 30 years. Extreme heat waves have become more frequent.

What's driving climate change in the region?

So what is driving the climate changes that affect the Himalayan region? Strong evidence points to two sources: 1) general global warming, the result of carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere; and 2) region-specific warming due to black carbon. This black carbon – emissions from unburned fuel and soot – are mainly emitted from India’s fleets of diesel vehicles, small brick kilns, cookstoves, and coal-based power plants.

Fortunately, unlike carbon dioxide, which stays in the atmosphere for centuries, black carbon falls out in a matter of days or weeks. And here is where India has an opportunity to combat this tremendous challenge.

Reducing black carbon emissions

To reduce the damages of these emissions, India could, for example, install particulate filters on its trucks and other diesel-thirsty equipment. It could distribute non-polluting cookstoves, and modernize brick kilns and coke ovens.

The density of coal-based power plants is high in the Indo-Gangetic plains, and the soot they emit affects the health of people living up to over a 10 mile radius from the plants. The air quality is affected for up to hundreds of miles, depending upon the meteorological conditions.

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