Home / Opinion / Views /  How Mumbai’s climate action plan can be a gamechanger in India

There are two very good things about the Mumbai Climate Action Plan that seeks to bring about net zero carbon emissions for the city by 2050. One is that such an action plan has been created at all. The other is that it seeks to implement it with popular participation. That is the only way any such plan can be translated into realized goals. That said, there are some things that need attention.

One is the conceptual issues involved in net zero emissions for a city. Suppose a city decides to go all-electric in its transport and cooking and generates all the power that is needed at a pithead power plant 1,000 km away, which merrily burns coal. Suppose, further, the city has plants that produce things like boilers that produce steam to drive power generation turbines, and the boilers will require coal to be burned. Even if the city is, in itself, primly emission-free, it would still be at the centre of a value chain that generates a lot of greenhouse gas.

This is where the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Corporate Standard offers help. It defines three scopes of emissions. Scope 1 covers the emission directly released by an entity. Scope 2 relates to the emissions created in the generation of the energy used by the entity in question. Scope 3 emissions are about the emissions that would be released by what the entity itself produces, even if the entity has zero Scope 1 emissions.

In the example cited above, of a city that draws its power from a distant coal-fired plant, its Scope 2 emissions are nasty. The city’s output will generate emissions when it (the coal-fired boiler) is put to use outside the city. That is, Scope 3 emissions would be high. Just because it has no direct generation of greenhouse gas emissions, that is, its Scope 1 emissions are zero, it does not mean that the city can lay claim to a clean green conscience.

To claim realistic net zero, an entity would need to have net zero in Scopes 1, 2 and 3 emissions. It is not clear that Mumbai Climate Action Plan rigorously plans for such a result.

It seeks to act in six verticals: energy and buildings, sustainable mobility, sustainable waste management, urban greening and biodiversity, air quality, urban flooding and water management. This is well-conceived. But for any kind of sustainability, it is essential to stop crowding the city further. As India prospers, new jobs will be created in industry and services, rather than on the farm, and this will lead to the growth of the urban population, to an extent that India will need tens of thousands of sq km of additional urban space. India simply needs new towns. Existing towns can be rebuilt to accommodate some more people, but a city like Mumbai needs new satellite towns with fast connectivity rather than further crowding of fresh immigrants into the existing space and infrastructure. That is not something that a city can achieve on its own, it involves higher-level center scope planning and action.

On the energy side, demand-side management should get priority. Building design to minimize energy demand has received the attention it deserves. But urban planning to prevent the building up of heat islands is equally important, something emphasized by the recently released second part of the Sixth Assessment Report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The city should hold its horses on committing huge outlays on new solar parks and wind energy farms. A revolution is underway in nuclear energy: small modular reactors in fission energy and revolutionary advances in nuclear fusion. It is time for India to move ahead from its pilot on thorium-based fast breeder reactors to regular, scaled-up generation. Nuclear power is a stable, environment- and climate-friendly form of power, free of the intermittency problem that afflicts wind and solar power. Mastery of fusion would pave the way for the large-scale well-conceived desalination of seawater to considerably ease India’s water woes as well.

But the revolution in nuclear energy might be fructified in the early 1930s. If huge investments are locked up in currently attractive green energy sources, that would inhibit the requisite investment in new sources of energy. Yes, we are talking of the sunk-cost bias distorting rational investment.

Mumbai’s climate action plan should energize other large towns to create their own action plans and for state governments and the Centre to coordinate these to make them organically coherent. Mumbai City deserves kudos from the rest of the country for taking this initiative.

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