‘Highway to climate hell’ goes through cities

As India girds up for the long and hard battle ahead, there should be no doubt that Indian cities are at the forefront, and their decisions and strategies will make the critical factors in how the country faces the climate crisis

Smruti KoppikarUpdated: Friday, November 25, 2022, 05:51 AM IST
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Representational image/ Climate change slogan | Markus Spiske

The alarm bells could not have rung louder at Sharm el-Shaikh in Egypt where the 27th edition of the UN Conference of Parties, or popularly called COP-27, played out this month. “We are in the fight of our lives and we are losing. Our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible…We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator,” UN Secretary General António Guterres warned world leaders gathered there.

That “highway to climate hell” – a distressed and scary imagery – is led by cities around the world which, studies show, generate more than three-quarters of carbon emissions. The impact of climate change is also the highest and deepest on cities – cities of wealthy nations and those of the developing ones in the Global South. The well-appointed jamboree with a heavy presence, ironically, of organisations such as fossil fuel giants and fast-food conglomerates, that need to own responsibility for bringing the planet and its people to the “tipping points,” came to an end with a reparations fund that the wealthier nations will monetise to enable the developing nations to address climate change issues.

The contours and details of this loss and damage fund are still being shaped; we are some distance away from seeing the rich and polluting economies walk the talk. At least, the need for such a fund has been accepted in principle. Flawed though it is, the COP remains the most authoritative international platform for countries around the world to agree and act on climate change issues.

India ranked seventh in the Global Climate Risk Index 2021. There has been some debate around its pledge to cut emissions to net zero by 2070 and achieve 50 percent non-fossil fuel capacity by 2030. The talk has been mostly at the national level, with the Government of India setting targets and making plans, as it should be. However, the foot soldiers in this battle against climate change are cities around the country, both the established metros and emerging Tier II cities, which are grappling with harsher summer and heat island impact, higher rainfall in concentrated spells which lead to flooding – Mumbai and Bengaluru catch national attention, but other cities struggle with flooding too – cyclones and unpredictable weather changes.

Mumbai, for example, is staring at rising sea level which could inundate or submerge large tracts of south of the city by 2050 and a rise of 4.6 degrees Celsius in mean temperatures, according to the last report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Earlier this year, the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) put out a report that elaborated on the rising temperature and increased rainfall in the best- and worst-case scenarios. “Mumbai will record a moderate warming of 0.2°C to 0.8°C in the summer maximum temperature and 0.1°C to 0.6°C in the winter minimum temperature during the 2030s… A 3-12 percent increase is projected in annual rainfall in Mumbai city and 3-9 percent increase in Mumbai suburbs,” the report stated. 

There are a dozen similar projections made for nearly every major city in the country, by both governmental and independent or international agencies. The question staring at us is: What have cities done about the looming crisis? As India girds up for the long and hard battle ahead, there should be no doubt that Indian cities are at the forefront, and their decisions and strategies will make the critical factors in how the country faces the climate crisis.

This is not to deny the impact of climate change, severe and life-threatening, on large populations in the rural areas and on the agrarian economy. But given that cities drive the Gross Domestic Product as well as contribute the larger share of emissions to global warming, the onus is on cities. Nicholas Stern, professor at the London School of Economics and co-chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, told The Guardian that cities, as “a source of creativity and innovation” could lead the global response to climate change, and ramping up investment in adopting renewable energy, ditching dirty construction materials and other low-carbon measures would bring financial returns too. At least three aspects stand out about cities and climate change.

Firstly, the focus should be on local plans and hyper-local strategies of mitigation and adaptation. For example, the mitigation strategy for Bengaluru will not work in Mumbai or New Delhi. Each city needs to draw up its own climate action plans that account for its topography, population density, infrastructure spread, and experience of climate events in the last few years. The India strategy can be the guideline but no two cities or places in the country are or function in the same way. The need for local and regional climate action plans was never greater. The parameters can be similar – to make buildings, transport, energy, and waste management greener – but the action plans to achieve must be localised.

Secondly, local governments or urban local bodies in each of the cities, or state governments to the extent that they are responsible for urban development, should be empowered both by law and resources to not only draw up the plans but also implement them. Climate events rock the nation, but one city at a time or a handful of cities in a season. The Government of India has a role to represent the country’s interests at the international level, such as at COP27, but to centralise climate action and funding would be chaotic and catastrophic. The central government can and must be the facilitator for cities but it must devolve control and resources to authorities that are closest to people – urban local bodies led by municipal corporations.

The funding aspect is critical to how cities approach the issue of climate action. Across studies done in the west, cities cited budget restrictions as “the top barrier” to take action on climate change. There is an asymmetry at the international, national and local levels – the richer nations are not happy about having to contribute to a fund for the poorer nations to tackle climate change impacts; within a country, most funds are mopped by the star cities leaving little for the smaller one; and within a city, the funds and climate mitigation projects are focused on the parts that house the well-off though the impacts are the hardest on the poorest who are the most vulnerable. There is a need to review the financing of all climate mitigation and adaptation work at all levels.

Thirdly, cities cannot hope to plan or implement plans in the typical top-down bureaucratic manner, without making it possible for the largest number of people who reside in them to participate in the planning and implementation, and making people’s participation an intrinsic part of the climate action plans. One of the biggest drawbacks about the Mumbai Climate Action Plan (M-CAP), launched with great fanfare earlier this year but nearly jettisoned by the new state government, was that it hardly made the space to listen to the people of Mumbai and take them on board in the climate mitigation and adaptation work. Without people’s participation, no plan can succeed.

Smruti Koppikar, journalist and urban chronicler, writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and media. She is the founder editor of ‘Question of Cities.’

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