As its population surges, India proposes to build a hundred “smart cities”, where all sections of society get access to basic amenities and can aspire to a better life. The promise would need to be grounded in reality. The challenging process will have to be both equitable and environmentally sustainable. The planet, as the latest United Nations report on climate change reaffirms, is heating up and needs urgent action. The report reminds that climate change is being spurred by carbonised fossil fuel-based urban development, consumerism, deforestation and industrialisation.

Given the environmental risks that lie ahead, China and India will have to “de-carbonise” their cities with clean renewable energies (biomass, solar, wind, etc.) and gradually end their dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Their energy footprint will determine the roadmap to Paris 2015, when countries meet to renegotiate an international climate policy for 2050.

But how will the quality of life in de-carbonised cities improve? How do we make our cities more humane, resilient, enjoyable and liveable? How do we create homes for all and centres of livelihood, innovation, recreation, health and education? All importantly, can we end carbon pollution in our lifetimes? While these questions may seem intractable to cynics, scientists continue to seek solutions to these to mitigate the adverse effects of polluted city environments around the globe.

Germany’s energy transition

In recent years, Germany has become the epicentre of the climate policy discussion. Its ambitious "Energiewende", or energy transformation, outlines a policy for a long-term transition to clean, renewable power sources like solar, biomass and wind by 2050.

This would mean a reduction in the country’s dependence on coal, lignite and other fossil fuels responsible for increasing carbon emissions and global warming. Complementing this transition is the country’s commitment to end nuclear power by 2022.

Germany’s efforts to mitigate climate change provide an innovative framework for other countries, including India. Carbon emissions and energy will be on the agenda when leaders meet in Paris. And India’s challenging Smart City Programme is almost certain to galvanise the discussions.

Urban researchers at the Berlin-based Ecologic Institute say Germany wants 40% of its energy to come from renewable sources by 2025, and 55 per cent of it by 2035. The European power’s bid to conserve environment, while pursuing industrial growth, may hold crucial pointers for Indian cities. Lessons from the Energiewende could shorten the expensive learning curve for Indian cities.

Renewable energy and efficient buildings

With abundant sun and wind, Indian cities are better placed to switch to clean renewable energy and solar or electric transport systems, though given the vagaries of weather more reliable sources like natural gas and biomass would be needed as well. This may not be too expensive in the long run. In the final analysis, large-scale investment in renewable energy is cost effective, as the German experience indicates.

Energy efficiency and better designed buildings, with more daylight and natural ventilation, can considerably aid this transformation too. After all, cities and buildings consume more than 60 per cent of energy.

India has a unique pluralistic culture of city-building and will eventually have to choose its own indigenous trajectory. There is great resilience in Indian cities, where a large number of people live in challenging conditions in informal settlements. A holistic energy transition of future cities could enable decentralization and equity, much needed for a growing democratic nation. New policies and mechanisms will have to be evolved to enable this transformation, to ensure cleaner cites.

In the Indian context, a smart city would be one with self-sufficient zones of mixed land use, where amenities would be at walkable distance, which would have seamless public transport, green spaces, public spaces for celebration, institutions of learning, cultural spaces of discourse, healthcare and quality housing for all. In a paradigmatic shift, smart cities would have to recycle waste and engender an ecologically-friendly way of life.

While many invest their hopes in high technology to build such a smart city, the real search would require a balance of appropriate technology, transparent and efficient governance, and importantly, a participatory civic spirit.

Eventually, for the millions migrating from India’s rural areas to urban centres, the tangible aspiration is a better life. The de-carbonised cities of the future would be legitimised only if they provide greater accessibility and equity to the most vulnerable and dignity to all.

Durganand Balsavar is an architect, thinker and social activist.