The Climate Crisis and Cities - A Call to Action for Urban Indians

Climate Crisis and the Cities – A Call to Action for Urban Indians

We are no longer on the fringes of a climate crisis

In the scorching heat of 2023, a stark reality dawns upon us: the world is heating up at an alarming rate. And if you think this year is a scorcher, brace yourself because 2024 promises to be even hotter. We are no longer on the fringes of a climate crisis; we are entrenched in its looming shadow. As our planet heats up, something else is rapidly changing – our cities. Urbanization is sweeping the globe, with India at the forefront of this transformation. By the end of this decade, India is poised to become predominantly urban. The question that arises is, what’s the connection between the climate crisis and this urban upheaval?

 The latest data indicates that 2023 is going to be the hottest year to date. However, that record is likely to be broken soon by 2024! The global temperature trends over the last few years underline that we live in the shadow of the climate crisis. Climate scientists have warned that the future of humanity in this century will be determined by how human civilization responds to this challenge in this decade (2020-2030). Through these challenging times, the world is also rapidly urbanizing. Notably, India is seeing massive urbanization. Post 2010, more humans are living in cities than in rural areas across the globe. India will likely be a predominantly urban country by the end of this decade.

Cities are typically energy and resource guzzlers. This also makes them significant contributors to GHG emissions. I have been conducting climate change literacy workshops with urban Indians since 2008. The Samuchit Carbon Footprint Calculator (the latest version can be found here) is the centerpiece of the workshop. The participants calculate their carbon footprints, and we generally find that most urban citizens’ carbon footprint is more than India’s per capita average carbon footprint. This indicates that most of our total GHG emissions come from the urban population, and the below-average footprint of the rural Indians keeps our national average relatively low.

India is one of the countries with rapidly rising GHG emissions over the last couple of decades.

This is due to a combination of two things. One : the consumption of resources and energy by a typical urban Indian has gone on increasing post-1990s, and Two: there is an expansion of the urban upper middle class – people who typically have a lifestyle associated with a high carbon footprint. This also means that India’s efforts to keep its GHG emissions in check need to focus on decoupling the urban upper-middle-class lifestyle (that everyone in the lower economic strata aspire for) from GHG emissions.

This will require considerable innovation and out-of-the-box thinking. For example, Suppose buildings are designed and constructed such that their rooftops generate enough solar electricity to satisfy all essential electric energy requirements. In that case, it will lead to a considerable drop in the personal carbon footprint of everyone living in that building. Architects and construction companies must innovate to design and build such low-carbon structures. The local governments must implement policies that incentivize the construction sector to design and build such buildings. Cities are typically hubs of innovation and entrepreneurship, and therefore, the scenario outlined here is not a very unrealistic expectation.

However, cities are facing a bigger problem than this. Cities are becoming exceedingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Urban planning, therefore, needs to focus on (a) understanding the climate vulnerabilities of a city and (b) putting in place infrastructure and measures that would reduce the risks of loss of life and damage to properties.    

Several cities have borne the brunt of climate disasters in the last few years. Typically, natural disasters cause havoc over large tracts of land, including rural and urban areas. The poor and rural communities tend to be impacted the most; for example, this was the case during Cyclone Yaas hitting the East coast of India in 2021. But climate disasters seem to be sparing none, and urban localities that were so far considered safe are also getting hit! Can we forget how residents of so-called posh localities in Bangalore had to be rescued on tractors in 2022 due to flooding caused by excessive rainfall? Even one of the most advanced cities in the world – New York – has suffered unprecedented flooding in 2023!

Whether it is India or the USA – whenever a climate disaster hits a city, the typical argument is that climate change caused this unprecedented situation. Therefore, the local administration was not prepared for this. It is true that the phenomenon that leads to a climate disaster – cyclone or extremely excessive rainfall most commonly – is indeed caused by climate change. However, the disaster in the form of loss and damage to people and infrastructure cannot be blamed solely on climate change.

Climate scientists have been predicting global warming trends since the 1990s. What kind of natural phenomena will be triggered or become more severe and more frequent in different parts of the world has also been predicted by researchers since the 1990s. These climate phenomena are becoming disasters because worldwide governments and their policy advisors, as well as urban planners, have ignored the warnings coming from the scientists. Had the policies and plans started aligning with a climate-changed future from the turn of the century, we would have avoided such devastating and damaging impacts.

We have had the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) in India since 2008! The state governments took their time to develop State Action Plans based on the NAPCC framework. The focus should have been building climate literacy within the governments’ rank and file. The task of making SAPCCs was outsourced to external consultants by all the state governments. As a result, even when the SAPCCs were in place, the state governments had no ‘ownership.’ These documents just languished in some dusty corners of the State Secretariats.

This year (2023), the excessive rainfall has caused havoc in the national capital. As I write this blog, a tragic disaster is still unfolding in Sikkim due to a glacial lake burst, impacting both rural areas and urban centers. The official communications in these and all such disasters point to climate change. If you walk out blindfolded into a site known as a minefield and get killed, what is to blame? The bomb or the blindfold? It is high time the policymakers and planners listen to climate researchers and mainstream climate considerations in policy making and planning.

The Indian governance structures, unfortunately, move at a snail’s pace. It, therefore, falls to us, the citizens, to push and prod the local state and central governments in the right direction! Cities, the power centers of the country’s economy and polity, must take the lead here.

An earnest appeal, therefore, to all urban Indians – Please step out of your comfort zone and into the local municipal corporation offices to demand climate-proofing measures for your city! Do connect with us if you need help figuring out what climate risks are likely to impact your city and its neighborhood and what steps are necessary for climate proofing. Some of the ways to engage with your local administration are : 

1. Activate mohalla committees and area sabhas (instruments provided to citizens by law) to focus on local climate resilience.

2. Demand carbon accounting and expected contribution to climate resilience of every infra project proposed in the city.

3. Help produce and spread climate educational resources customized to your city’s situation.

As our cities expand and evolve, they stand at the intersection of two critical challenges: climate change and urbanization. The onus is on us, the stewards of these vibrant urban centers, to drive change. We must catalyze innovation, steer policy, and champion climate-proofing measures in our cities. Climate change is not an abstract concept; it is a reality that affects us all. The future of our planet hinges on the choices we make today. Let’s unite urban Indians and step out of our comfort zones, raising our voices to demand climate resilience in our cities. Connect with us to understand our cities’ climate risks and the measures needed for a sustainable, climate-proof future. Together, we can shape thriving, resilient cities that stand as beacons of hope in an uncertain, climate-altered world.

The author is Dr Priyadarshini Karve, Convener, Indian Network on Ethics and Climate Change (INECC).

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