Cities, Climate Change and Crisis

From cities as big as New Delhi to small ones like Gopalpur in Odisha and everywhere in between, citizens are affected by the historical rise in population, pollution and climate change-induced disasters. All these issues are converging in cities and posing a threat to urban dwellers especially to the underprivileged.

Cities continue to grow in both numbers of people and economic activities. More economic activities, in the present context, mean more emissions. Cities and the issues related to climate change are closely linked. Cities contribute to climate change in a big way—from fossil fuel consumption for electricity generation, running of vehicles and industrial production; to change in land use, reckless exploitation of natural resources and irresponsible waste disposal.

Reports suggest that cities are responsible for over 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. As cities continue to fill the atmosphere with deadly pollutants, people are experiencing longer droughts, erratic rainfalls, deadlier storms and frequent trips to hospitals. The impact of climate change on finances of the city can be just as devastating as the physical ones. Unexpected expenditures from storms, flooding, and drought can lead to major disruptions in business operations and city budgets.

Increasing temperatures, heat waves, changing precipitation patterns, intensification of extreme weather events and rising sea levels have become a reality. Such changes have also challenged many traditional industries in peri-urban regions like agriculture, fishing, and forestry. They are facing new obstacles.

Cities may be taking some steps to tackle climate change related issues but they need to treat the problem rather than the symptom. The major problem lies in ever-increasing emission rates of cities. Reducing emissions drastically, adopting measures for negative emissions and the sustainable lifestyle are required more than ever.

The World Resource Institute did a case study of Arnala village that is situated along the north-western coast of Mumbai. Lubaina Rangwala, Managing Associate, Climate Resilience Practice, WRI, wrote in her report that the village has a predominantly agrarian and fishing economy and a population of 19,350 people. Using this village as a case study, the institute conducted research to document and analyze the interconnected impacts of urbanization and climate change on the livelihoods of fishing and agriculture-based communities in peri-urban coastal areas. The report says that villages like Arnala demand attention because due to increasing levels of climate uncertainty and regional pressure, youth in the village are gradually moving away from the village’s traditional industries. Rapid urbanization in the region and poor waste management systems have resulted in water pollution, straining the fishing industry. Indeed, urban expansion in coastal cities (or their peripheries) often results in the deterioration of mangroves, threatening fish species and driving down profits for fisheries. This is not the story of just Arnala. The situation is the same in many cities, even in the landlocked regions.

Often people who are on the frontline of climate change induced risks are the least responsible for the crisis. Urban poor are the first ones who suffer the worst consequences of disasters whether it is flooding in Chennai or collapse of a portion of Ghazipur landfill. They have weak safeguards.

Recently, Delhi witnessed ‘severe’ air pollution level when PM2.5 and PM10 concentration crossed the ‘emergency’ threshold. National Green Tribunal (NGT) and the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) for the National Capital Region banned construction related activities including stone crushing, road construction activities, closed brick kilns and power plants in the national capital as proposed in the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP). It was aimed to bring down the pollution level. In the given scheme of things, the poor daily wage labourers suffered economically for no fault of theirs. With the change in weather and wind flow, the crisis will be over and the situation will get back to normal but who will compensate the losses of the poor? How are the governments and other agencies going to address this?

Bhure Lal, Chairman of EPCA, has said in a written reply to the Apex Court that “…GRAP is designed as a response plan to rising pollution and not a substitute for long-term actions….” Then why is there no concrete long-term action plan? The government has not banned diesel vehicles from plying on the roads, power plants are still operating in the city, no major overhaul in the policy for making the use of private cars more expensive and no visible efforts to increase the frequency and connectivity of buses in the capital city. The recent hike in metro fares added to the woes as the ridership went down.
While implementing climate change action plans, the government needs to address the issues of climate justice that the Government of India had raised in COP21 in Paris. The logic was that the developed countries contributed to GHG emission because of increased industrial activities thus they must be held accountable and must pay to the least developed and developing countries who did not contribute to global warming but are facing climate change induced risks. Many island nations including the host country of this year’s COP-Fiji are facing an existential crisis. Why is such logic not applicable at the local level? Why should the poor, who are the least responsible, pay the price?

Many European cities had started developing cycle-friendly infrastructure almost a decade ago as it was hailed as a great cost-effective and environment-friendly alternative to fossil fuel-run vehicles. Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Malmo, Dublin, Montreal, Vienna, Berlin, Barcelona and a host of Chinese cities are some fine examples. While in India, cities did make some efforts to build cycle lanes and bike docks, the fundamental issues related to their success have not been addressed

Governments at all levels, local, state and centre, must develop consensus and bring changes in policies to reduce emission in the cities. There is no simple solution to this as various complex issues are interlinked with roles of many government and non-government agencies. National Green Tribunal (NGT) and EPCA have limited powers to take action against the emitters. It has been a regular occurrence that government bodies have failed to implement the actions suggested by the NGT or EPCA. For example, there is a clear directive of EPCA to issue a warning in case of poor air quality but no such mechanism exists. The government officials are just informing people through newspapers and media channels. In another case, Delhi had implemented vehicle rationing scheme last year to bring down pollution levels but the application of the scheme had too many loopholes. The NGT had asked to do away with exemptions and bring two-wheelers under the purview of the Odd-Even scheme.

Delhi is not the only city that is facing the issue of severe air pollution. However, it is undoubtedly among the most polluted cities in the world; yet it has no innovative solution at its disposal to address the problem. Indian cities can learn from the experience of global cities and their action plans to tackle the problem.

What are other cities doing to curtail air pollution?

Stringent norms against the emitters, a more effective vehicle and road rationing scheme and smog-sucking towers are among the few measures that have helped Chinese cities to bring down their emission and curtail air pollution. In many Chinese cities, vehicle rationing system automatically becomes effective when the air quality plummets. The warning alarm system is also strong. Citizens get a message on their mobile phones if air pollution reaches the dangerous level.

Many European cities had started developing cycle-friendly infrastructure almost a decade ago as it was hailed as a great cost-effective and environment-friendly alternative to fossil fuel-run vehicles. Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Malmo, Dublin, Montreal, Vienna, Berlin, Barcelona and a host of Chinese cities are some fine examples. While in India, cities did make some efforts to build cycle lanes and bike docks, the fundamental issues related to their success have not been addressed. For example Lucknow, Noida and Delhi built cycle lanes but these paths are encroached upon by street vendors or locals using them as parking space. India may be world famous for its IT talent but this has not been used for solving basic civic issues. Cycles in China can be rented through a mobile app, locked through a digital code, returned anywhere in the city and the payment for the service can be made online. Authorities in Indian cities or any private party have not done this as even in the national Capital, the general public has no idea from where to rent cycles. However, the lower middle class still has no option but to ride bicycles in our cities but as soon as they can afford one, they buy a two-wheeler. The first major hurdle is non-availability of continuous cycle track within the city and it makes cycling unsafe and inconvenient. According to the statistics of the government of India, cyclists and pedestrians account for almost 60 per cent of total deaths in road accidents.

Buildings too are big energy guzzlers. The concept of green buildings in India has not picked up the pace yet. However, Bureau of Energy Efficiency with UNDP has started Energy Conservation Building Code cells in many states but the concept has not picked up yet at the ground level to make a difference in cutting emission levels of cities. These steps need to be expedited for building more liveable cities for our citizens and to leave a healthy ecosystem for future generations. For this, cities would have to reduce their ravenous appetite for energy in a time-bound manner and the role of local bodies will be central.


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