Increase in temperature impacts physiological and cognitive capabilities. According to ILO estimates, 2 percent of the world’s total working hours are going to be lost due to hot weather by 2030. India would lose 5.8 percent of its working hours and as many as 34 million jobs.
Labour productivity is directly influenced by temperature and heat. As two researchers, Heal and Park, recently wrote, whenever days are hotter than usual, labour productivity is lower per person. And whenever the temperature is colder than average, productivity increases.
Over the past few decades, the global temperature has witnessed a significant increase as a consequence of climate change. Climate change has become a topic of discussion and deliberation at national and international levels, due to its multifaceted impact on the environment and the well-being of people, flora and fauna.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the average global temperature would witness an increase between 1 to 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. This change would bring opportunities for some regions and disruption for others. On the one hand, it can provide desirable circumstances to work outdoors in colder countries, while on other hand, excessive heat would have economic and social impact in warmer regions. Holistically, the damage would be greater and would increase and intensify over time. At present, the world is witnessing more hot days, which has both mental and physical impact on people.
With the number of hot days growing, labour productivity is decreasing, especially in South Asia and the Pacific. These areas are exposed to extreme heat and its effects due to their geographical location. This can be explained by the concept of ‘heat-stress’: It refers to excessive heat – more than what the human body can tolerate – which hampers an individual’s performance and their working productivity. This can be seen in different walks of life. For instance, a student would score low on a test on a hot day and a professional would be unable to perform to his/her potential when exposed to more heat. In other words, whenever there is an increase in temperature and exposure to heat, there is a direct impact on physiological and cognitive capabilities.
According to studies, whenever there is a one-degree increase in the average temperature over 10 days, the probability of a worker being absent increases by 5 percent. Therefore, with an increase in the heat level index, the productivity of an economy reduces. The impact is more significant in developing countries and comparatively poorer countries, due to their location and their inability to afford services to prevent exposure to heat.
Action and Reaction: Case of India
In the fifth assessment report of the IPCC, temperature was seen to increase in Asia overall, with a higher frequency of warm days. As per predictions and patterns, the twenty-first century will be marked by warm weather and heatwaves in different regions. This observed and predicted pattern has a direct impact on the economy and the lives of people. This observation has been reinforced over time by numerous researchers and has been highlighted in a report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2009. The report states that hotter countries become 1.2-1.9 percent poorer with each degree of higher annual temperature.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 2 percent of the world’s total working hours are going to be lost due to hot weather by 2030 – or because the pace of working would reduce due to the changing temperature. Two-thirds of South Asia would be impacted, losing 5.3 percent of its working hours and as many as 43 million full-time jobs. India would also be highly affected, losing 5.8 percent of its working hours and 34 million jobs.
The predicted impact on India is not only based on its location but also due to factors like accessibility to infrastructure – transportation, electricity and water – and dependence on agriculture. Over 42 percent of the Indian workforce is employed in agriculture and related activities. According to the World Bank, parts of central India are more prone to climate change, as they lack resources to deal with the rising temperatures and are largely dependent on agriculture. In some of these regions, rural distress has been prominent, and with the increase in droughts and the failure of crops, there would be deep financial impact on agricultural households. There will also be risk to food prices and food security.
Another sector which has boomed in India in the past few decades and would be highly affected is the construction sector. Besides this, the informal sector would also show a decline in productivity, due to lack of proper ventilation and inability to afford air conditioners. This would have consequences for garment industries and weaving factories, which are expected to see a decline in productivity of 1.8 percent per degree.
Therefore, exposure to ambient heat has serious political, economic and social repercussions. In India, climate change will have an evident impact on major sectors, employing a majority of the labour force. The upcoming challenges would be amplified by existing structural problems, causing increased poverty and inequality. To deal effectively with these concerns, policymakers need to reflect on how we can broaden the domain of environmental sciences to social and economic perspectives.
As per the ILO, the government can support policies for infrastructure and capacity building, through climate-smart urban planning, reduced energy costs of air-conditioning, social safety nets, supportive labour laws and regulations, and most importantly, the spread of awareness about the upcoming challenges and developing emergency plans for heatwaves. India must upgrade its labour laws and provide social security to the informal labour force – the section which is most vulnerable to the economic effects of climate change. The government, employers and the workers must all recognise these upcoming challenges.