climate change

Can Indian cities lead on climate action as they go about their development goals?

Climate-friendly projects need to go beyond incremental fixes and move to strategically planning for future growth.

United States President Donald Trump’s decision on June 1 to exit the Paris Agreement – a deal ratified by 149 nations and designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to battle rising temperatures – was met with reproach across the world. Alongside national actors in the European Union, China and India, many unorthodox allies also reaffirmed their commitment to addressing climate change. The mayors of 331 US cities argued that they would act with or without federal support towards a low carbon future, as it is in alignment with their development aims. This position directly opposes Trump’s acerbically stated premise that climate actions are antecedent to development. And so, as Trump unceremoniously departed the centrestage, American cities rose to it.

These events are relevant for Indian cities, which are growing centres of people and infrastructure. Do they, like their US counterparts, have the ability to lead on climate action? Moreover, how will Indian cities cope with the conundrum of balancing climate and development?

Development and innovation

At the outset, Indian cities have little choice but to put development first, with critical gaps in the provision of housing, transit, sanitation, safety, jobs, water and energy infrastructure. Yet, national policy and city initiatives are incorporating climate action into urban planning, driven by the synergies between city development and climate goals.

The Ministry of Urban Development’s Green Urban Mobility and Transit Oriented Development schemes encourage low-carbon public modes of transit. The Smart Cities Mission boosts uptake of rooftop solar, LED street lighting, green buildings and sustainable waste management. The new “Liveability Index” motivates cities to evaluate action across environmental, social, economic and physical terms, as opposed to singular or sectorally-specific indicators.

Climate action in Indian cities is thereby primarily reliant on national and state-level schemes, unlike the more independent governance by cities in Trump’s America. However, the design and implementation of these national or state schemes is often bolstered through local innovation and collaboration with non-state domestic and international actors, such as research think tanks, consultancies and international development agencies.

For example, Rajkot’s municipal corporation was tasked with delivering housing under the state and national affordable “Housing for All” scheme, which makes little reference to climate change. But the city’s engineers, going beyond the mandate of the schemes, included elements of passive ventilation and cooling and a rainwater harvesting system, thereby incorporating energy and climate resilience into their housing design. The project received national recognition, indicating an appetite for environmental leadership through urban development programmes.

US cities are willing to work towards a low carbon future despite President Donald Trump's decision to exit the Paris Agreement. (Credit: AFP)
US cities are willing to work towards a low carbon future despite President Donald Trump's decision to exit the Paris Agreement. (Credit: AFP)

Trade-offs and transitions

In principle, this reliance on easily identifiable synergies between development and climate serves as an effective and politically viable entry point for city climate action. But it gets more complicated when cities need to make a trade-off between climate and development.

Take the example of electric vehicles. The government has announced an ambitious target for all new vehicles in 2030 to be electric, starting with taxis, e-rickshaws and buses and, eventually, private vehicles. The motivations are to reduce vehicular emissions, improve air quality and reduce dependence on foreign oil, all perfectly reasonable. But the scheme avoids asking how cities will negotiate the rise in vehicles with the implications on other urban objectives – such as exacerbated congestion and the need for an increased share of public transit. Policy making has, so far, shirked from deliberating these difficult questions.

More so, unlike in developed countries, decision-making in Indian cities is not about selecting appropriate technologies within a sector, but about managing a more fundamental choice on the nature and form of urban growth. Estimates indicate a tripling of India’s built environment (man-made spaces, such as buildings) to accommodate 200 million more urban dwellers by 2030. Choices on growth today will thereby lock in urban form for the coming decades – which, as history has indicated, is incredibly resistant to change through decades.

This is relevant for the role of Indian cities in mitigating climate change, as their choices will condition the energy and carbon profile of the future. Unfortunately, current trends suggest that their development trajectory is one that promotes urban sprawl, increases motorised transport, reduces green cover, and heightens local pollution. With these stark challenges, will cities be able to lead on climate action and also achieve their development aims?

Beyond incrementalism

Indian cities have demonstrated the ability to adopt low-carbon initiatives when development and climate objectives align. But the approach assumes that incremental fixes and innovations within sectors will eventually culminate in long-term and city-wide liveability – a view that disregards the need to strategically structure future development.

This is important, as cities are not culminations of sites and projects, but complex systems with interacting elements. A green building without access to a transit network is not as useful, because it encourages automobile usage, negating any systemic benefits from its efficiency measures. In cities, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, requiring a structure for how its elements interact. Indeed, this is what planning sets out to achieve.

Given the magnitude of change Indian cities will face in the coming years, how future growth is planned for will be the true test of their success.

The Smart Cities Mission has, in this sense, fallen short of its overarching intention to better structure India’s urbanisation. While it fostered some inter-departmental dialogue, it focused more on project implementation than on engaging with the fundamental question of future urban growth. Cities and consultants, when tasked with finding solutions to city-wide problems, were constrained by national scheme guidelines to think of only technical and digital fixes. As a result, the scheme resulted in projects such as LED street lighting and GPS-enabled buses and waste collection trucks, without rethinking built form or transit networks.

The status quo of city development and climate action leaves open the urgent question of what the nature of growth will be, putting Indian cities at risk of developing urban forms that lock in high consumption and carbon emissions, and stress local environments. And so, while cities begin to develop climate-friendly projects, they have not made the shift to strategically planning for their growth. We are potentially moving towards a more urban India, rudderless.

The authors are Fellow and Research Associate, respectively, at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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