When United Nations Secretary General António Guterres in 2018 described the climate crisis as the “defining moment of our time”, he was at least a couple of decades late. He was, however, accurate in forecasting a “dark and dangerous future”.

We are approaching “scientists’ worst-case scenarios,” he said. What makes this even more disturbing is that “we were warned”.

Climate change due to human emissions of greenhouse gasses is simply the biggest existential threat to life on the planet. And yet, we are confronted with two sorts of climate-change deniers among decision makers. One category is committed to extermination by pretending the science isn’t real. The other consists of people who make impassioned speeches about the future of our children while they fiddle around the edges in terms of action.

The good news is that social movement pressure for climate action has finally begun to show on some state governments. There is a much-needed emphasis on action. Unfortunately, much government-speak seems to betray a public relations’ strategy rather than a climate action strategy.

Take the recent comments of Maharashtra’s Environment Minister on the “road map” for climate action in Mumbai. Aaditya Thackeray provided a list of projects his government is pursuing. Under “mitigation” were listed electric buses, sewerage treatment plants, and urban forestry. Under “adaptation” were mentioned pumping stations to deal with “excessive” monsoons.

Underlining the government’s approach to “sustainable development”, he boasted about the Rs 1 lakh crore of investments that the state will cross this year, while simultaneously protecting forests, sanctuaries and conservation reserves.

Sketchy policies

But sketchy comments suggest sketchy policies. What is missing are measurable targets and timelines – emission cuts, making a transition to clean energy, improving air quality indicators, public health indicators and increasing public transport ridership. What is misleading is the idea that we are faced with a technical problem in need of technological fixes. What is mistaken is the notion that select green projects will compensate for the harm caused by growth-fixated business as usual.

So, while the government gives out some climate-friendly signals, the general thrust of policy remains firmly locked in place. In his UN speech, Guterres warned: “We must ensure that that infrastructure is sustainable or we will lock in a high-polluting dangerous future.” Yet, infrastructure development in Mumbai is actively inducing behaviour that accelerates emissions and is making the city more addicted to fossil fuels.

In fact, there has never been a better time for fossil-fuel oriented big-ticket projects in Mumbai.

Mode Fuel cost in rupees per passenger-kilometre
Suburban rail system 0.25
City bus system (BEST) 0.58
Metro 2.05
Two wheelers 2.66
Four wheelers 5.50
Source: Mumbai Environment Social Network

The trends are alarming. The table above shows the environmental costs of various modes of transport in Mumbai (this does not include the environmental cost of constructing the infrastructure) assuming that fuel costs correlate with carbon emissions. It is evident that suburban rail and buses are the least polluting modes of transportation.

But how has the city made its investments over the last three decades? Negligible spending on increasing the capacity of suburban rail and buses or on reducing private automobile use. Instead, there has been massive spending on metros and car-only infrastructure projects.

Two degrees is too late

In December 2020, India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy put out a concept note to develop one green city in every state of the country. At the same time, in a year where extreme weather events and brutal lockdowns resulted in unfathomable pain and suffering, the Indian government’s Covid-19 business relief package was reported by Indiaspend to be the fifth-worst on the Global Environment Index for its focus on carbon-intensive, environmentally-damaging industries.

It was also a year in which the government diluted critical environmental, labour and farm laws. It is difficult to imagine how India plans to reach – much less enhance – its global commitments on climate action.

At the moment, current policies of world governments are projected to limit global warming by 2.9 degrees above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100. If governments act upon the unconditional pledges they made under the international treaty on climate change in Paris in 2015 (CoP-21), warming would be limited to 2.6-2.8 degrees – and we would reach two degrees of warming by 2050. But climate scientists have warned since the 1990s that 1.5 degrees should be the limit of global temperature increase over the preindustrial average.

At a two-degree increase and beyond, the earth system will roll out of equilibrium – the consequences of warming will become the cause for greater warming (this is sometimes called the “hothouse earth” effect) - creating amplifying feedbacks. Warming will continue even if emissions are eventually reduced. Humanity will be completely powerless to influence the climate system.

In other words, what is being done as well as promised to prevent warming is way short of ensuring survival of organised human life.

In the words of Peter Carter, “Two degrees is too late.” We will never see three degrees of warming because we will be long gone.

Climate change and coastal cities

There has been a great amount of discussion about the risk of living along the coast in a warming world due to sea-level rise (which is often gravely underestimated) and extreme weather events. The general assumption seems to be that sea-level rise and storm surges will be the only threat to low-lying inhabited areas. There is almost no discussion about threats to marine ecosystems due to ocean acidification (atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolving into oceans), impact on groundwater tables, and the disruption of food systems.

Consequently, a range of coastal fortification infrastructures (such as sea walls) are being proposed by adaptation engineers, and risk is making way for a false sense of security. Unfortunately, these proposals fail to account for the complex topography and interaction of groundwater with rivers, streams and tributaries in coastal areas, and therefore neglect emergent groundwater as a significant flood hazard.

A recent paper in Nature Climate Change anticipates a rise in shallow groundwater tables due to sea-level rise, endangering areas beyond those likely to be inundated by marine flooding alone. Also significant is a report indicating that higher atmospheric levels of CO2 in the atmosphere reduce the ability of plants to absorb water from the ground, leading to higher soil saturation and increased flood risk.

Wastewater treatment plants at low elevations are highly susceptible to coastal flooding, and risk contaminating areas and water bodies beyond those under direct threat from rising sea-levels.

Trucks carry material for the construction of Mumbai's Coastal Road. Credit: Aaran Patel

Climate instability over the next few decades will have decisive impacts on agriculture, ranging from extreme disruption to total failure. And while people will be forced to move away from coastal areas due to sudden and slow onset disasters, many will be forced to move to urban centres (often along the coast) due to extreme impacts on ecosystems and agriculture, on a scale we haven’t witnessed before. Cities that are unprepared to cope with these potentially large consequences will be faced with an imminent collapse of health, infrastructure, economic and entire social systems.

These dangers are neither exaggerated, not trivial. We do not need precise models to indicate that climate change will soon place us in uncharted territory. Which is why all interventions ought to be based on the precautionary principle: if a project or policy has even a suspected risk of harm to the climate system, it should not be undertaken without scientific near-certainty about the absence of harm.

In other words, the burden of proof must be on those proposing the action, not on those opposing it. As authors of a note in 2019 on precautionary measures argue, when actions have potentially large consequences, both scientific decision making and ancestral wisdom dictates that the absence of evidence must be taken very seriously. People who oppose environmental deregulation or destructive projects for its scale of impacts must be presumed correct until proven otherwise.

Adapting cities to climate change

Tokenistic gestures and symbolic projects to fight climate change will not avert ecological disaster. As American economist Robert Polin points out, climate change presents a profound political challenge in the present era, and the ultimate “what is to be done” question. How we organise our cities, and especially those most vulnerable to climate impacts, is one of the most urgent problems. The problem, however, cannot be overcome by resorting to fetishism of technology, or obsession with economic growth. Nor will we save the earth by valorising some primeval “return to the earth” innocence.

Our response will need a combination of infrastructural change, environmental protections, a clean energy transition, and economic justice – in short, our response will need to be collectively planned. What follows are some possible directions for climate adaptation for cities.

1) Retrofit existing urban transport infrastructure to minimise fossil-fuel dependence: Not only do we need to resist the suicidal urge to build freeways for cars, but we must also undertake a massive programme of retrofitting our existing free-ways and roads with wider pedestrian pavements, exclusive bicycle and bus lanes.

Instead of building expensive elevated metros over arterial roads, dedicate one lane for buses to achieve more efficient and affordable public transport. Disincentivise private transport through heavy parking charges, congestion pricing and fuel charges – use the revenue to expand public transportation. Evaluate performance of transport policy based on city-level fuel consumption, public transport ridership and modal shares.

2) Retrofit existing buildings; harvest the sun, wind and rain: Instead of redeveloping existing urban fabrics to energy inefficient high-rise developments, adopt a comprehensive low-cost / subsidised programme of improving and making existing buildings energy and water efficient.

Rainwater harvesting will recharge groundwater and overhead tanks; solar and wind harvesting technologies can meet demand for energy demands of every neighbourhood; passive techniques can be adopted to heat and cool living spaces.

For example, more than a hundred cities in the United States have committed to transition to 100% renewable electricity, most of them by 2035. Our aim must be a city level transition to carbon-free electricity in the next decade.

Mangroves in Mumbai's Bandra area. Credit: Aaran Patel

3) New energy efficient high-density low-rise developments: Many of our cities need new housing, and for every development, we will need to find the optimum balance between “embodied energy” (or the total sum of energy consumed for construction of the building), land area, energy consumption and cost of building use, as well as health and comfort of inhabitants.

While stand-alone single family homes take up too much precious land, high-rise construction are high on embodied energy and require energy intensive life-support systems to run. There is a great deal of evidence to show that high-density (300-450 units per hectare) walk-up buildings can provide the optimum balance between energy efficiency, dwelling density and wellbeing. If equipped to operate as net-zero energy consumption units – this would be the most suitable residential form for a warming planet.

4) Grow food wherever possible and form local food cooperatives: Transportation of food is one of the major food-related contributors to global emissions. Which is why, every city in the world can learn from the low-energy urban agriculture system of Havana, also called organoponics – one of the most successful examples of urban agriculture in the world. It turns out that food can be grown anywhere – in balconies, on terraces, backyards, in converted parking lots, traffic islands, neighbourhood parks and even along railway tracks. Growing food in cities requires new ways of sharing urban land, which may also facilitate newer ways of relating to one another.

5) Make land permeable, plant native trees, protect and expand ecosystem services: Permeable land (that allows water to percolate into the soil) limits stormwater run-off to reduce risk of urban flooding. Urban planners and policy makers have a frivolous conception of “nature” as existing in pristine uninhabited landscapes. There is a poor general understanding of what is called urban nature, or ecological systems that are coterminous with urban settlements which include forests, trees and groves, natural streams, rivers, permeable land, marshes, wetlands, and so on.

As highly interconnected and interdependent networks, these support wildlife habitats as well as provide ecosystem services. Urban development projects have a terrible record of biodiversity and habitat studies, and so called impact mitigation strategies have limited success precisely because they have a reductive focus on protecting and relocating particular species rather than preserving habitats.

The tree-lined streets of Five Gardens in Mumbai's Dadar area. Credit: Aaran Patel

6) A new regime of “maximum standards”: Most urban planning regulations in Indian cities are based on a gradually diminishing regime of “minimum standards” – living space, open space, basic services – aimed in theory at securing a tolerable standard of living for the poor. In practice, this results in a system where essential goods and services are rationed by a person’s ability to pay, since no limits are prescribed on the lavish (and unsustainable) display of opulence by the few in the midst of urban poverty.

But since land, living and road space is scarce and land-use change is unsustainable, should there not be a heavy cost on over-consumption of these goods? Since water is deficient, shouldn’t there be a certain threshold beyond which it is progressively priced? Since CO2 emissions are damaging, should there not be measures and sanctions beyond what a person can reasonably pollute?

7) Correct environmental injustices; safeguard and expand public goods: the ideological commitment of the state to privatization has led to a shrinking of essential services, decline in quality and increasing costs. For example, the recent budget of Mumbai’s public bus system shows that contractualisation will actually cost the utility more per passenger kilometer than running it as a public service. The poorest are most vulnerable to climate impacts, and only a robust and accountable system of public goods and services will guarantee security and well-being for all.

8) Safeguard vulnerable populations, strengthen environmental protections: India’s coastal regions are home to an estimated 170 million people. According to the US military, sea-level rise scenarios of 1.5 meters by 2100 cannot be ruled out for planning adaptation measures. Despite these grim projections, our living shorelines are being concretised for coastal freeways, and exploited for ports and industrial projects. Coastal communities around the world are defending themselves from the rising seas.

Precautionary safeguards will include restricting construction in high risk zones, upgrading neighbourhoods to improve defences against extreme events, and, in some cases, setting up a progressive planning framework for managed retreat to safer areas.

Although not exhaustive, these measures may offer some hope in avoiding the most severe impacts of climate change. The challenge is enormous. And the window of opportunity is shrinking fast.

Hussain Indorewala and Shweta Wagh teach at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies (KRVIA) in Mumbai. They are researchers at the Collective for Spatial Alternatives, an action research and community planning collective.