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Urban India must prepare for the climate crisis

ByVarun Gandhi
Feb 04, 2020 07:14 PM IST

Shift to a co-benefits approach. This can enable greater energy access, better waste management, and cleaner air

Australia’s recent bout of bushfires, sparked by an extended drought, has devastated its local flora and fauna. Meanwhile, just across the Timor Sea, Indonesia’s capital Jakarta witnessed record-breaking flooding with unseasonal rainfall, displacing tens of thousands. Closer to home, cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru have witnessed more days of temperature exceeding 35°C in the past decade than they did in the past. Average temperatures in India increased by 0.6°C between 1910 and 2018.

In 2018, India suffered over 2,081 deaths from climate-triggered extreme weather events, with an economic loss of over $37.8 billion (about three times the losses of 2017). In particular, 2018 saw heavy flooding in Kerala, combined with tropical cyclones such as Gaja and Titli, along with the usual heatwave in north and west India. Flooding of coastal cities is a risk in particular. Parts of cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata, Surat and Kakinada are at risk of being under water by 2050. (Climate Central, 2019).

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The climate crisis, thus, is here.

India’s policymakers need to come to terms with the climatic and geographic heterogeneity of India’s cities — there are at least 50 cities with a population above a million. Many of these, for instance, Chennai and Mumbai, are vulnerable to the climate crisis, given their geographical location. And yet, sustainable action against the climate crisis has not been prominent on city planning agenda until recently.

A chain of waste management initiatives has been kicked off in Mumbai, Surat and Kolkata. The Smart Cities Mission has been a welcome initial step towards addressing the climate crisis. Similarly, the India Cooling Action Plan aims to reduce cooling demand by 25% and refrigerant demand by 25-30% by 2038.

Our urban development approach needs to change, skewing away from a development -first approach. We need to embrace a co-benefit approach, seeking win-win solutions that can help bridge conflicts between different policy agendas. Such an approach could lead to improved energy access, waste management, cleaner air and the generation of employment. Consider Kolkata. A study found that the city could reduce its carbon emission by 21%, across sectors, by 2025, with investments having a payback period of four years. Reinvesting the proceeds of such an investment would lead to a further reduction in carbon emissions for the city. This is not an unknown approach for us. India’s National Action Plan for Climate Change (2008) integrates this approach.

In addition, cities need to start planning and enacting initiatives to mitigate the climate crisis on an urgent basis. Cities must stop paving over soil that is water-absorbent, or building over natural floodplains. Urban initiatives need to incorporate planning for events such as heatwaves. This is no longer a public health problem.

There is a need to coordinate with municipal departments across labour, drinking water and power. This will also require additional data gathering and city-level research. Most coastal urban road projects continue to use reports from the 20th century (between 1878 and 1993) which forecast sea level rises of 1.27 mm per year. Meanwhile, as per the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa, the average sea level rise in India has increased to 3.2 mm per year in the period 1993-2012.

At a larger level, we also need to revamp our realty markets, ensuring that the climate crisis emerges as a pricing signal. We must encourage local builders to factor in issues such as the rise in the sea level and climate crisis in their risk analysis, while focusing on retail assets that are future-proof (for instance, by building them on stilts or enclosing them in water-absorbent gardens). The impact of the climate crisis will affect urban landscapes across India’s geography.

With India’s population expected to rise to 1.7 billion by 2065, the majority of it urban, the demand for liveable cities will be hard to square with the development first agenda. The right set of investments in climate mitigation will help make our cities resilient, helping them cope with climatic extremes, be it a reduction in water supply, or a heatwave. Systemic support for our cities, with downward empowerment at the municipal level, can help move India beyond the climate crisis induced urban insecurity. By adapting and mitigating at the right time, we can avoid an upcoming crisis.

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