Emerging Themes: Sustainability- Climate Change and Air Quality


Given that cities now house majority of the world’s population and contribute significantly to the global GDP, they inherently assume responsibility for most of the world’s carbon emissions. Although cities occupy less than 2% of the Earth’s surface, they consume roughly 78% of the world’s primary energy and produce more than 60% of all carbon dioxide and significant amounts of other greenhouse gas emissions, mainly through energy generation, vehicles, industry, and biomass use. In India, cities generate two-thirds of GDP, 90% of tax revenues, and the majority of jobs, with just a third of the country’s population.  It is projected that by 2030, while the urban population of India shall grow to 40.76% of the total population, the share of GDP contributed by urban areas shall touch approximately 70%. However, while the urban sector contributions to the country’s GDP increase, at the same time, the domestic power consumption in urban areas was three times that of the domestic power consumption in rural areas. There is a strong two-way relationship between economic development and energy consumption.  Energy, regardless of the source, is a primary need for development. City-related production, mobility and transport, infrastructure and urban density, as well as private households, lead to a substantial increase in urban energy demand.  However, this in turn leads to increased economic prosperity required for fueling urbanisation.

Yet, as the global climate change concerns rise with increased frequencies of unnatural weather occurrences, cities assume a greater role in moving towards sustainable resources of energy and utilisation patterns of those resources. In the business as usual scenario, cities become increasingly vulnerable to exposure to degrading air quality and susceptibility to natural hazards. Indian cities have begun to experience these effects especially with the variations in rainfall patterns. Over the last ten years, significant occurrences of  high intensity rain and flash flooding has been seen in coastal cities of Mumbai (2005), Chennai (2015), Vishakhapatnam (2014), Srinagar (2014) and Surat (2006, 2013). While the coastal cities are most vulnerable to flooding and cyclonic winds, the hill cities experience landslides. The landlocked cities such as Delhi and Indore are now estimated to suffer from droughts and heat waves. Delhi also has the dubious distinction of the most polluted city in the world especially for air quality.

Thus, cities have to adopt multiple strategies, firstly invest in climate resilient infrastructure to mitigate the risks of human and capital loss if and when climate change events occur, secondly incentivise urban infrastructure of housing, waste management, sewage and sanitation and power supply to move to a reduce, recycle and reuse model and finally introduce behavioural change to sustainable modes especially in transportation. The National Smart Cities Mission provided a perfect vehicle for integrating these sustainability objectives of climate resilience and green growth within the national development strategy.  The core infrastructure elements of Smart Cities include assured electricity supply and efficient urban mobility and public transport. Access to affordable and reliable electricity is critical for the development of the cities. For example, e-mobility is a critical aspect of a smart city which can be implemented by providing uninterrupted power.

Sustainability Planning in SCPs

The Smart City models support compact urban growth thereby reducing the environmental impacts of sprawl and focus on the development of dense, socially mixed neighbourhoods that promote human-scale urban environments and healthy public green spaces to maintain livability. They also promote transit oriented development (TOD) and focus on smarter transport systems including Bus Raid Transits (BRTs), bicycle and car sharing, smarter traffic management systems, electric vehicles and are complemented by smarter urban utilities including efficient energy using renewable energy sources, waste and water management systems, street lighting technology, smart grids and more efficient buildings, both via retrofitting and redevelopment.

A preliminary glance at the self assessment evaluation process which the cities had to undertake to establish their existing condition reveals 11 criteria of a possible 24 having a direct positive relation with sustainability. These factors are listed as compact, mixed use, public open spaces, transport, walkable, energy source, energy efficiency, water management, air quality, solid waste and waste water management The mission also challenged the cities to look at convergence with other sustainability initiatives of Government of India such as the National Solar Mission. The acknowledgement by the cities of the importance of sustainability planning is reflected in the proposed projects by the 20 lighthouse cities selected in the first round. Some highlights from the proposals are-

•          Overall 256 projects have been identified by the 20 cities for sustainability. The targeted investments for these 256 projects amount to $1.7 Billion or about 25% of the total smart city investments of the 20 cities.

•          The projects were classified into four main priority areas,

•                      Green city design and resilient infrastructure – 153 projects amounting to $968 million. Projects vary across greenway and open space design, water recycling, solid waste management systems, rainwater harvesting, dual piping systems and air-quality monitoring etc.

•                      Energy efficient public transport – 39 projects amounting to $118 million, varying across bicycle sharing systems, electric/hybrid buses, pedestrian networks and ICT applications for bus route, travel planning etc.

•                      Energy efficient and sustainable buildings – 24 projects amounting to $307 million. Projects primarily targeting rooftop solar panel systems and LED lighting for municipal and private buildings.

•                      Smart energy systems and grids for cities – 40 projects amounting to $339 million. City level projects ranging from solar power generation, wind based energy, energy efficient water pumps, smart grid implementation etc.

Thus the 20 lighthouse cities have recognised the environmental, social and economic benefits of mainstreaming projects geared towards climate adaption and air quality improvements.  The successful implementation will require knowledge diffusion within the city agencies, partnerships with communities and businesses and institutional commitments to scale up these innovations to city scales.