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Cities can lead the way on climate transformation

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Time is running out. This message is unequivocal, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as it rounded off its sixth assessment with a synthesis report. Unless we halve global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in the coming decade, we will reach 1.5°C warming in the first half of the 2030s and may then have to drastically adapt to a 2.7°C warmer world by the end of the century.

Effectively integrating blue, green, and grey infrastructure in urban areas can help in adaptation and mitigation (ht archives)

The impact of higher warming could be worse for India and South Asia, given the region’s vulnerability to climate extremes and a demographic that includes some of the world’s poorest populations.

The world’s cities and towns, home to over 55% of the global population, offer us the biggest opportunity for transformational climate action. This is especially true for India, where one of the largest urban transitions in history is underway. How can our cities deliver on the net-zero agenda, build climate resilience, and meet our development priorities so that no one, no place, and no ecosystem is left behind?

IPCC pegs the transformational change on five simultaneous systems transitions — urban and infrastructure; land, freshwater and ocean ecosystems; energy; industry; and societal. With 40% of our population estimated to be urban by 2030 and 70% of our built environment yet to take shape, the urban transition is pivotal for India.

Compact and inclusive cities, a shift to low-carbon buildings, green building codes, promoting public transport and electric vehicles are tried and tested ways to reduce emissions. Several of these mitigation options are being reflected in India’s national and state policies.

The Centre has been eager to promote public transport via metro rail, buses, electric vehicles, and improved fuel efficiency, to impact the transport sector that accounts for 14% of India’s greenhouse gas emissions. The demand for electric vehicles (EVs) from public buses to cars has gone up with the National Mission for Electric Mobility targeting a 30% share of sales for EVs by 2030. To scale up this shift, we will have to ramp up citywide EV charging infrastructure, last-mile connectivity, and a broad range of financial incentives.

Indian cities such as Delhi (metro), Ahmedabad (bus transit), and Mumbai (suburban railway) are experimenting with compact urban form and integrated transport through transit-oriented development (TOD). TOD promotes high-density, mixed-land-use that clusters homes, businesses, service hubs, and retail outlets around transport stations. This can create walk-to-work hubs, promote walking and cycling, reduce the use of cars, and hence, reduce energy consumption. Yet, a big hurdle in making TOD inclusive is the urban political economy which makes affordable housing in these high-density nodes difficult. This tends to exclude poorer people, who underpin the urban economy. Further, the real scope for compact development with integrated public transport lies in emerging cities, where much of the infrastructure is yet to be built.

There is also much potential in cutting back emissions in the building sector by making India’s energy building norms mandatory across all residential and commercial buildings. This can further be accelerated by integrating energy efficiency norms in the design of millions of Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) houses.

Given our climate vulnerability, long-term adaptation planning that has synergies with mitigation and our development goals is critical to the resilience of our economy and communities. To tackle climate extremes, we need to build and retrofit our infrastructure to be climate-resilient, improve access to services, and tenure security to vulnerable people, who face disproportionate climate risks.

Upgrading informal settlements, often built in the most risk-prone areas including low-lying coastal areas, with resilient infrastructure and low-carbon buildings, should be prioritised to reduce the vulnerability of the urban poor. Investment in resilient basic environmental services such as water supply, sanitation, and stormwater drainage via flagship government schemes such as the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) can also help reduce climate vulnerability.

Effectively integrating blue, green, and grey infrastructure in urban areas can help in adaptation and mitigation by reducing the urban heat island effect and the impact of floods, providing sustainable cooling and sequestering carbon. This can be done by creating and restoring urban forests such as in Kochi; investing in cool roofs for low-income households in Ahmedabad; and reviving water bodies such as in Madurai. Over 25 cities in India reported some form of adaptation action in 2021. Yet, most of these interventions are short-term. This has to change.

A climate-resilient urban transition will underpin and accelerate India’s development into a larger, more productive and inclusive economy. This will happen when we are able to integrate a range of mitigation and adaptation measures across the urban energy, building, transport and environmental services sectors. However, the window of opportunity to implement just and equitable climate action is short-lived. Our chance to secure a liveable future in urban India and on this planet rests on the choices we make today.

Aromar Revi is director, Indian Institute for Human Settlements The views expressed are personal

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