Last 18 months have been the most trying for humanity in the last 100 years. We are not talking of Coronavirus (Covid-19), but a greater, deadlier danger that we are facing collectively as citizens of this planet - climate change.
Literally unbelievable events have unfolded whether it’s the heat dome in Canada, flash floods in Germany, unprecedented snow in Spain, extraordinary spell of rain in China or the latest flooding in New York. Besides, loss of human life and property, these events are depleting natural capital in the impacted areas. The losses suffered by flora and fauna in Australia's forest fires are not to be taken mildly. Where are we headed and how quickly we can correct the course before it becomes too late.
India has traditionally derived energy from biomass which has been highly polluting and a big source of GHG emissions. After achieving Independence we embarked on building modern pillars of energy infrastructure and according to plans, constructed thermal plants for power generation, refineries for oil products, transportation relying heavily on diesel and in rural sectors the kitchens continued to use firewood. While this approach was to some extent sustainable despite the huge quantity of emissions, somehow there were no signs of any diruptions in climate patterns and perhaps there were no pressures in any areas of human inhabitation since urban rural divide maintained an even balance till late 1970s.
From 1980 onwards, and more so after the reforms in 1991, the urban-rural balance started getting disturbed with the pace gathering momentum each passing year. Regional disparities widened and people, in search of a better life, started migrating from rural areas to urban. Pressure mounted on energy requirements in cities as people moving to cities sought access to energy for mobility, lighting and cooking.
The cities started to get polluted and we all became aware of the concept of AQI when in the late 90s, the Supreme Court in its various judgements pertaining to pollution in Delhi ordered the national capital to have CNG operated public transport. It was not only Delhi, other cities also faced similar problems and now we have a situation where all big cities are facing high levels of pollution coupled with overpopulation and the entire topography has changed because of unplanned construction and large scale migration etc. Large scale construction today has emerged as another big contributor to pollution. Increasingly these big cities are becoming vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The wrath of Hurricane Ida in New York is a striking example of the climate vulnerabilities of big coastal cities.
India still relies 44% on coal, 32% on oil and still burns traditional biomass which accounts for 20% of our energy mix. Encouragingly, India’s energy policy is increasingly focused on solar, wind, gas, biofuels, hydrogen and electric mobility. India has ambitious targets for decarbonisation, be it doubling the share of natural gas, renewable installed power target of 450 GW, and the recently announced Green Hydrogen mission. However, the recent of freak weather incidents in the country, in the form of unseasonal floods or entire glaciers melting overnight, floods in Uttrakhand and Himachal, appear to call for a rejig in our policy formulation approach. Today, most of our decarbonisation plans are fixed at the national level. Of course, there are state level policies too, for renewable energy and increasingly for electric vehicles. However, there still remains an urgent need to have city-wise plans to make our national level targets realisable.
It should be the city and town administrators who should be directly accountable for implementation of a unified clean energy road map for their jurisdictions. There should be incentives for the achievers which may be in the form of tax breaks or lower cost of utility per unit for residents of the concerned geographical area. Citizen participation from cities would also be more forthcoming as they increasingly come face to face with environmental pressures and therefore identify with the targets for their cities to address this stress. India has no dearth of sunshine and a prompt switch to solar rooftop generation can be a quick fix solution to power homes and increasing reliability of power supplies.
Many B-class cities and towns with low rise housing are amenable to such a shift. Embargoes on polluting sources of energy at local administration level hold the key in controlling local air pollution. In fact, we have clearly demonstrated the power of focused city level targets through the shift to CNG powered public transport in Delhi. It served as a role model and set the ball rolling for growth of CNG transportation in other cities and the country as a whole. The massive success of Chinese city of Shenzen in electrifying its entire fleet of buses is another example of the power of city-based targets. Moreover, with high and growing digital connectivity through mobile telephony and broadband, cities are also amenable to leveraging digital technologies such as big data for managing city services efficiently and reducing emissions.
Globally cities account for 50% of world population and 80% of global emissions and are the epicentre of environmental stress. Targeting these would not only bring focus to the overarching national plans, but also serve as an efficient way of achieving national targets given the concentration of emissions in cities.
The author (Sanjiv Sharma) is an executive director with a leading energy company. Views are personal.