Millennium Post

Climate challenge: Tough reducing emissions

With the year drawing to a close, there is much uproar about pollution, climate change, and the environment, both at home and globally. Climate justice may have won at the just-concluded Paris climate conference but the climate challenge remains.

India has had limited success in the negotiations. With massive development planned, emissions are bound to increase drastically. We need to find ways to contain them and to look inwards at situations unfolding and those which have affected large parts of the population. Delhi is battling the worst air pollution and Chennai is recovering from its worst-ever flood in a century. Suddenly, India is in the crosshairs.

Climate scientists attribute any and every abnormal phenomenon on global warming be it soaring temperatures devastating downpours, landslides, or drought. But the irony is that our policy makers and administrators do not accept that most calamities are man-made and avoidable; they wake up only after disasters strike and are left blinking with no action plan to handle the situation. The reactions are knee-jerk. Worse still, they do not swing into action till the court sound the gavel. The Supreme Court had ordered, after a PIL in 1998, the conversion of public transport buses, three-wheelers, and taxis in Delhi to CNG by April 2001. But the vehicle industry lobby and the state government continued plying buses; contrarily, the government allowed nearly 6,000 new buses in 2000. It was only after the apex court came down heavily on the government in 2002, that diesel buses vanished.

Once again, the Supreme Court intervened last week and agreed to examine a plea seeking a ban on diesel vehicles in the capital. Following suit, the National Green Tribunal banned registration of new diesel vehicles in Delhi. It also told the government not to renew the registration of diesel vehicles that are more than 10 years old.

Likewise, State agencies engaged in relief and rescue operations failed to coordinate and help Chennai as it went under water. Now, the Madras High Court has directed, acting on a PIL, the Tamil Nadu government to submit a report as it was concerned at the lack of their coordination. Why are planned, concerted, and cohesive preventive measures absent? Warnings were not taken seriously by the local administrations earlier either. Why does it need the court to intervene to act? Besides Delhi, lawmakers at the Centre and states are indifferent to the other 12 Indian cities which are also, according to the WHO, among the world’s 20 most polluted cities.  As the country races ahead economically, major demographic changes and movements are occurring rapidly. By 2040, the economy is expected to grow five-fold. In the next 25 years, an additional 315 million people are expected to move to towns and cities. Housing, transportation, and power will exert more burden on the existing infrastructure. Hence, a perennial influx of energy will be required to propel growth, and also for sustainable development.

As the power of money multiplies and disposable income increases, the lust to own private vehicles, white goods, gadgets and gizmos—all-energy-driven—rule everybody’s mind. New car sales are soaring. Environmental degradation, with vehicles further congesting the roads and spewing more carbon dioxide, is, however, on no one’s priority list. Will running private cars on odd-even days be the only solution?

Efficient public transportation systems in all major cities and also towns are required urgently to cut down on emissions. Mass transits like metros, tramways, and articulated buses (trackless trolley buses or vestibule buses) need to go on a fast track. Dedicated cycle lanes are indispensable in any city.

Simultaneously, congestion tax on roads and parking tax in residential areas of big cities and towns (not in suburbs) should be levied. This will force people to move to satellite towns and suburbs. Further, new manufacturing set-ups will also heavily impact the energy sector. A spurt in production will have a cumulative effect on carbon emissions. Urbanisation would lead to the expansion of the construction industry. Its constituent sectors such as steel and cement are particularly energy intensive. Hence, cities have to get smarter to tackle issues related to large-scale urbanisation.

But will the development of 100 smart cities provide core infrastructure give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment and application of “smart” solutions? Unfortunately, these smart cities are envisaged mainly as extensions of existing towns and cities that will create satellite townships and not decentralised or independent spaces that will have smart solutions and minimal carbon footprint. The downsides, most notably, will be energy consumption, wastage, and congestion. Infrastructure creation will slingshot the demand for energy. Can we create cities like the five topmost in the world—Barcelona, New York, London, Nice (France), and Singapore? These cities score high on environmental safety and creative use of technology. With a pledge to contain carbon emissions to less than 35 percent by 2030, how is India going to achieve its modernisation goals as power generation and consumption are bound to leapfrog; emissions will also multiply cumulatively.

The main source of energy in India is fossil fuels, with almost 60 percent of installed power plants running on coal. By 2030, coal dependency will still be 53 percent. India would need to shore up its renewable sources of energy like solar and wind energy, and as also hydroelectric and nuclear power, as it seeks to reduce its carbon footprint. Solar power is yet to register with the masses. Unless solar power becomes cheaper, coal will dominate. Hence, it will be a Herculean task to keep temperatures below 2 degrees C, as agreed to by 196 nations in Paris.  

(K V Venkatasubramanian is an independent journalist. Views expressed are strictly personal)
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