Being centres of economic growth and estimated to house more than 60% of the world’s population by 2030, cities present the way for low carbon growth, says a report. India must also ensure that its cities follow the climate smart path

(Image by Deepak Gupta)

(Image by Deepak Gupta)

As India prepares to select the first 20 cities under the Smart Cities Mission, a recently released report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate (GCEC), has found that there is a $16.6 trillion economic opportunity for cities to turn into low carbon development pathways.

The Commission, an initiative by former heads of governments, finance ministers and leaders of economy and business, states that the policy initiatives and investments made now will ensure that cities can take to low carbon growth.

Cities aggregate population, make a strong contribution towards economic growth and have high intensity of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Due to their high population density and high economic activity, any savings on GHG emissions made in the cities will have a disproportionately high impact on national and global emission reduction figures.

The percentage of the world’s population living in cities is growing, and this makes them important locations for making GHG emission reductions. It is estimated that 1.4 million people are added to the world urban population every week; by 2030, around 60% of the world population will be living in these urban centres.

Cities are centres of economic growth and are estimated to contribute $62 trillion to the global GDP. By 2030, this is expected to rise to $115 trillion, which would be equal to 87% of the global GDP.

The GCEC report makes an assessment of 11 clusters of low carbon activities for cities. The total urban population considered is 3.6 billion in 2010, 5 billion in 2030 and 6.3 billion in 2050. Through the 11 clusters of low carbon pathways, there would be a reduction in the annual GHG emissions by 3.7 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Gt CO2e) by 2030 and 8.0 Gt CO2e in 2050.

Though there would be a cost for opting for low carbon pathways, the benefits will outweigh this, states the report. The low carbon investments would collectively pay for themselves in 16 years. Between 2015 and 2050, these investments would have a net savings of $16.6 trillion.

The 11 clusters of activities relate to buildings (heating efficiency in new buildings, heating retrofits, improved appliances and lighting and solar photovoltaic), transport (urban planning and reduced passenger transport demand, shift in passenger mode and improved transit efficiency, passenger car efficiency and electrification, freight logistics improvement and freight vehicle efficiency and electrification) and waste management (recycling and landfill gas capture).

By 2050, low carbon activities will result in a GHG abatement of 36% from residential buildings, 21% from commercial buildings, 29% from passenger transport, 6% from freight transport, and 8% from waste management. The quickest payback is with improved appliances and lighting in residential buildings, where the money invested would return in 73 days. The longest payback is for heating retrofits in commercial buildings – 23 years.

The interventions are not very difficult, if thought through and implemented. For instance, making cities more compact, connected and efficient can have both economic and environmental benefits, and improve productivity. It will also reduce the cost of providing services and infrastructure such as public transport, energy, water supply and waste management.

With the exception of a planned city such as Chandigarh and a few industrial townships, most Indian cities have grown organically over the years. This has not given planners time to plan and develop infrastructure. When expanding around the peripheries into newer townships, planning can ensure that developments stay compact and connected.

Without compact development, the cost of congestion itself would eat into productive time and money. In India, congestion in cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai leads to economic losses and adverse health impacts.

The GCEC report quotes that as a proportion of GDP, the cost of congestion is estimated at 1.15% for New York. 1.5% for London and 15% for Beijing. Similarly, cities that are better connected by public transport are more productive, have greater purchasing power, achieve a better overall quality of life and attract more investment.

Expanding and improving mass transit has direct benefits. The transport sector is the fastest growing consumer of fossil fuels and generator of GHG emissions. Shifting from individual motorised transport to public transport and non-motorised alternatives have wide-ranging benefits. Cities across the world have been experimenting with innovative methods such as congestion fees and bus rapid transport systems.

Reducing energy consumption in buildings and encouraging roof-top solar photovoltaics and encouraging regional power grids energised by renewable sources, can help cities reduce their carbon footprint substantially. There are many innovative examples being worked out in different parts of the world, and can be implemented in India without much investment.

For India, the GCEC report comes at an appropriate time when the country is discussing the Smart City Mission. The government had listed 98 Indian cities to be developed as smart cities in the next five years, and city administrations are bidding to get into the first 20 to start the scheme this year.

Among the 98 cities selected, the states of Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh have the highest number, with 12 cities each. Jammu and Kashmir has asked for more time to decide on its potential smart city.

The mission plans to develop the selected cities through an area-wise step-by-step process using one of three means – retrofitting (making changes to an already developed area), redevelopment (developing anew an already developed area) or greenfield (developing an as yet undeveloped area).

However, where the mission documents lack focus is in spelling out what city administrations can do make their areas sustainable and follow low carbon pathways. These finer details are left out for the city administrations to draw up along with its citizens. Although this looks grand from a democratic point of view, it misses out on building a national perspective on urban sustainability.

Also, the elected representatives to the cities are unlikely to have either an appropriate understanding of the concepts of sustainability and low carbon development, or an appreciation on their city’s role in dealing with climate change. Though the 74th amendment of the Indian Constitution devolved greater powers to urban local governments such as municipal corporations and municipal councils, there are gaps in the training of the leadership in these bodies.

This is where networking with global cohorts such as the Compact of Mayors, a new global collaboration of elected and official leaders from cities, can help. Also, working with donors who have implemented sustainable city projects can help design low carbon development pathways.

There is no dearth of funding support being offered to develop smart cities. The World Bank has offered to support some of the cities. In June, India’s Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu had said that in addition to the World Bank, 14 bilateral and multilateral agencies are ready to invest in the smart cities.

This is the time for city administrations and citizen groups to ensure that their cities look beyond information technology infrastructure for smartness. Their cities can become real smart only when these urban centres embark on a low carbon growth plan.

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