Air-conditioners and air-coolers displayed for sale at a store in New Delhi, India, on Monday, May 8, 2023.
CNN  — 

When blistering extreme heat gripped India’s capital this summer, Ramesh says he felt faint but had no option other than to keep on toiling under the burning sun to provide for his family.

“The heat is becoming unbearable,” the 34-year-old bricklayer told CNN. “But we do not have a choice, we have to work.”

Ramesh lives with his parents, three brothers, a sister-in-law, and three children, in a congested suburb in western Delhi, a city that has made headlines in recent years as mercury levels regularly climb to dangerous levels.

And as temperatures topped 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) this June – closing schools, damaging crops and putting pressure on energy supplies – the heat was making his family sick too.

Ramesh, who goes by one name, says he borrowed $35 – nearly half of his monthly salary – from relatives to buy a second-hand air conditioner for his home.

“It makes a noise, sometimes it releases dust,” he said. But he cannot do without it.

Ramesh sits outside his flat in Delhi.

By 2050, India will be among the first places where temperatures will cross survivability limits, according to climate experts. And within that time frame, the demand for air conditioners (AC) in the country is also expected to rise nine-fold, outpacing all other appliances, according to a recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Ramesh’s predicament encapsulates the paradox facing the world’s most populous country of 1.4 billion: The hotter and wealthier India gets, the more Indians will use AC. And the more they use AC, the hotter the country will become.

India emits nearly 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year based on data collected by the European Union – contributing about 7% of global emissions. The United States, by comparison, causes 13% of CO2 emissions, despite having a quarter of India’s population.

This raises a question of fairness that climate scientists have often asked: should people in the developing world shoulder the cost of reducing emissions, despite being among those least responsible for rising greenhouse gases?

At the COP28 climate talks in Dubai that concluded recently, India wasn’t among the list of countries that signed a pledge to cut their emissions from cooling systems. Addressing the opening session of the summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said all developing countries must be given “a fair share in the global carbon budget.”

Nonetheless India, one of the world’s fastest growing economies, is on the front line of the climate crisis. And it finds itself in a tough position. How can it balance its development while ensuring environmental protection?

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the Transforming Climate Finance session at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai on December 1, 2023.

Rising heat

Vast swathes of India’s population remain reliant on AC for their physical and mental wellbeing. And the country’s more tropical southern regions remain hot year-round.

Over the past five decades, the country has experienced more than 700 heat wave events claiming more than 17,000 lives, according to a 2021 study of extreme weather in the Weather and Climate Extremes journal. This June alone, temperatures in some parts of the country soared to 47 degrees Celsius (116 Fahrenheit), killing at least 44 people and sickening hundreds with heat-related illnesses.

And by 2030, India may account for 34 million of a projected 80 million global job losses from heat stress, according to a World Bank report in December 2022.

This puts millions of people at risk in a country where more than 50% of the workforce is employed in agriculture. And as incomes steadily rise, all while urban populations explode, AC ownership has grown at a remarkable rate.