Climate Change

El Nino to cause global losses worth $84 trillion by 2099, India may be more vulnerable than estimated

Impacts of El Nino will be more pronounced in poor countries in the tropics like India

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Friday 19 May 2023
El Niño events tend to be much larger and more intense than La Niña events. In picture, an El Nino rainstorm approaches San Clemente Beach in California, US in December 2015. Photo: iStock

El Nino, a climate pattern predicted to strike in 2023, is estimated to cost the world $3 trillion in losses by 2029, a new study estimated. The losses can go up to $84 trillion from 2020-2099, according to the paper published in Science journal.

El Nino and La Nina are the warm and cool phases of a climate pattern across the tropical Pacific called the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). 

The three-year run of La Nina ended this year and ENSO-neutral has set in. There is a 90 per cent of an El Nino this winter, according to the United States agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Read more: Black Summer: Australian wildfires linked to La Nina’s three-year streak, finds study

“We have known for decades that El Nino is an incredibly important Earth system phenomenon, affecting weather around the globe and even shaping variation in global mean temperature. But the full economic impacts of El Nino have not been fully examined,” Christopher W Callaha, a PhD scholar at Dartmouth, told Down To Earth.

The researchers used a model to estimate the national gross domestic product per capita from 1960-2019. The model compares economic growth before and after El Nino events to assess cumulative impacts. 

They also used a model to project how future El Nino events impacts global economy. A slow economic growth for more than five years occurred after the 1982-83 and 1997-98 El Nino.

The losses were $4.1 trillion in five years after 1982-83 event and $5.7 trillion following the 1997-98 event.

Unlike El Nino, La Nina is linked with some economic benefits. “However, these benefits are generally small and highly uncertain, in contrast to the major losses from El Nino,” Callaha explained.

El Nino events, he added, tend to be much larger and more intense than La Nina events.

Burden on India and climate finance 

In India, the 1982-83 and 1997-98 El Nino events cost roughly 3 per cent and 1.5 per cent of the country’s GDP per capita, respectively. 

“These results indicate that, along with many other countries, India is more vulnerable to climate variability than we realised, even independent of climate change,” Callaha explained.

The impacts will be more pronounced in poor countries in the tropics. 

Read more: Unprecedented early heatwaves in India, Pakistan 30 times more likely in 2022 due to climate change: Scientists

Further, countries that witness wetting and drying during El Nino will see persistent losses as anomalously high and low rainfall can lead to damages, the researchers wrote in their study. 

Lower-emitting countries have not historically contributed to climate change. But they will bear a higher economic burden.

So major emitters like the United States and Europe should finance adaptation in affected tropical regions. Callaha explained.

As climate change could intensify El Nino, the researcher stresses that high-income countries should cut their emissions.

The researchers plan to further understand how climate change will affect El Nino and the Pacific Ocean more broadly. 

“We can say with confidence that if climate change amplifies El Nino, there will be economic losses globally, but it remains to be seen whether this amplification will occur and what its magnitude might be,” Callaha said.

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