Cities, recognized widely as the real drivers of economic growth and prosperity, are major contributors to climate change globally. They cover less than 2% of the earth’s surface but consume 78% of the world’s energy and account for 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Cities are also particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, as many of our population centres are located on coastlines, rivers and flood plains. They are, therefore, central to building the low carbon and resilient infrastructure needed to ensure sustainable economic growth that both addresses and adapts to climate change. Globally, there is growing recognition of the fact that cities need to be at the forefront of mitigation and adaptation in relation to climate change.

Indian cities have borne the brunt of climate change recently in the form of urban floods, poor air quality and heat waves. However, the response of our governments has been tardy and tending towards knee-jerk solutions such as banning firecrackers, imposing odd-even car usage, and ad hoc policies such as adoption of electric vehicles and imposing bans on plastic or curbing use of diesel cars. The issue has not seen adequate engagement with the public; there is, therefore, a low level of discourse on the risks to sustainability.

For cities to adequately mitigate climate changes, it is essential to adopt a “systems" view of the challenges involved and identify and undertake systemic reforms for a sustainable solution. Janaagraha’s Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems (ASICS) helps identify specific gaps in city-systems across cities, which inhibit the ability of cities to mitigate climate change across four components.

Urban planning and design: Urban density and spatial organization are crucial elements that influence energy consumption, especially in transportation and building systems. Our cities lack effective planning, implementation and enforcement, both at the levels of policy and practice, to promote mixed-use planning, to reduce daily commutes/average trip lengths, and to place environment sustainability at the heart of spatial planning and design of cities. Moreover, we do not have adequate number of qualified town planners to accomplish any of this.

Our cities do not have provisions for adoption of building by-laws and development control rules that promote energy-efficient and climate-friendly buildings. Nor do they have sectoral plans such as mobility plans that are fully integrated with spatial development plans.

Urban capacities and resources: Well-resourced urban local governments, in terms of financial and human capacities and use of technology, are fundamental to meet the growing climate change challenges faced by our cities. Our cities lack adequate financial resources for investments to build walkable streets and to fund sustainable urban transport and related infrastructure. They are not equipped with the financial management systems and processes required to access climate financing, such as green bonds.

There exists a severe shortage of skilled personnel specialized in areas such as environmental engineering transportation, traffic management, disaster management and related areas.

Empowered and legitimate political representation: Globally, empowered mayors of cities are leading the charge against climate change. In India, mayors and councils are far removed from the discourse on climate change and environment sustainability. It is imperative to have strong local political ownership. Our cities lack empowered local leadership in the form of strong mayors with adequate administrative and financial powers. Moreover, state governments have yet to devolve real authority to cities to take decisions that have local impact, such as curbs on private vehicle use, restrictions on polluting industries, and coastal zone regulations.

Transparency, accountability and participation: Citizen behaviour is intrinsic to climate change. Consumption patterns, waste disposal practices, wastage of precious resources such as water and power, usage of public transport as against private transport, walking and cycling as viable commute options are directly related to citizen participation. Our cities lack active citizens who are informed and engaged on the subject of climate change and sustainability, which is essential to mitigate and build resilience.

Citizen participation is imperative to reduce energy consumption related to transportation and household use as well as for introduction of regulatory and fiscal mechanisms to reduce carbon footprint, such as congestion pricing. Citizens also need to be engaged on demanding accountability from local authorities, including transparency and information on livability indicators such as air pollution levels, percentage of garbage segregated, modal share of public transport, walking and cycling.

As our urban population expands and incomes grow, so will the demand for urban amenities like housing, energy, transport, water and waste disposal. Unless accompanied by sustainable development and climate change mitigating policies, it will result in an increase in emissions and worsening of climate change. Interventions by our governments have focused on fixing the symptoms and, while important, they are only short-term and unsustainable. Addressing the challenge posed by climate change will require an approach and thinking that addresses all systems underlying urban governance to save the only home we have.

Anil Nair is head, reforms, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy.

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