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Saturday 23 September 2017
News updated at 1:58 PM IST

Mumbai: a climate change alert again

Sapan Thapar Sep 2 2017, 3:23 IST

Focus on climate change mitigation rather than adaptation measures, as the latter is many times costlier.

On August 29, Mumbai was deluged by torrential rains, making it challenging for most people in India’s largest city to reach their destinations. Chandigarh, that “urban planner’s marvel”, faced a similar situation a few days ago; Chennai suffered it in 2015; and every year, floods create havoc in the central and north-eastern states, wrecking cities, wiping away farmlands, causing loss of human lives and livestock.

While the inability of our cities to deal with the rains and flooding is a failure of planning and administration, experts attribute unusually heavy rains and other abnormal weather events to climate change, highlighting the huge costs we must bear in order to mitigate its effects, or spend even more to adapt.

India is growing at a phenomenal pace, impacting the environment in terms of climate change, a trend that will exacerbate with rapid urbanisation. The rural population contributes far less to carbon emissions than city dwellers. The impact will get pronounced when the economy makes a shift from services to manufacturing (think, Make in India). As such, there is a need for a paradigm shift in the development model followed towards sustainable development.

With city after city being battered, reports indicate that India will require a massive amount of climate change funding — perhaps a trillion dollars — to embark on this sustainable journey. A similar figure was also propounded by the erstwhile Planning Commission towards infrastructure development.

To put it straight, availability of funds is not a constraint. India is a bright spot among the large economies where global investors, such as pension and sovereign wealth funds, are queuing up to invest. The key challenge, however, is in terms of calibration of the development model. The need is to focus upon climate change mitigation efforts rather than taking adaptation measures, as the latter is many times costlier than the former — prevention is better than cure!

An example is the use of solar power, which is cheaper than coal power when compared on a lifecycle cost basis – the latter requires air and water cleansing activities, besides greenhouse gas sequestration. Another proposition can be co-locating cycle tracks alongside roads to promote non-fossil fuel transportation, developing mass rapid transit systems alongside highways, composite town planning to obviate large-scale movement. Similarly, the Clean India Mission can be dovetailed with bio-bins, generating energy-rich methane as a by-product.

The National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) was a well-conceived document, which articulated sustainable development across all major sectors of the economy — habitat, forests, agriculture, the Himalayan eco-system, clean energy and water — and delineated eight missions. The icing on the cake was in the form of coal cess, to be used for environmentally sustainable activities under a Clean Environment Fund.

Remarkable work has been done to green our energy supply chain, be it renewable capacity addition, or a multitude of energy conservation measures. The LED lamps and solar modules have become ubiquitous all over the country, resulting in reduced energy intensity of our economy.

Financing sustainability
Incidentally, banks are more than willing to finance climate resilient projects, enjoying a better credit rating over the conventional coal and gas projects which form a large chunk of their NPAs. Sustainable business is business sustainability for them; they need to be farsighted in order to design appropriate instruments. Innovative financial instruments are being employed to scale-up funding of clean-tech projects. This includes green bonds, risk guarantee funds and equity support from alternative investment funds.

Although the change is steady, it is slow and the impact of these mitigating actions will be felt over the next few years. Immediate attention is required to prevent calamities such as annually recurring floods, droughts, land-slides, which make our urban and rural populace vulnerable to the vagaries of nature. Many of these so-called natural disasters have been attributed to anthropogenic activities.

It is time to start pondering over the type of development process we need to pursue, rather than blindly aping the West. We need to quickly identify the problem areas, categorise them in terms of impacts and design appropriate solutions.

Two of our inherent strengths would provide us with a first mover advantage: our vast human resources and technology orientation. The young amongst us — half of our population is under 25 years — is technologically savvy, and inclined and inspired to ideate and think differently.

Grooming these young minds to take up entrepreneurship and nurturing innovations can lead to the development of solutions and systems required for this paradigm shift. They can design solutions for the challenges confronting the masses, to ensure sustainable development as enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals. The efficacy of Start-up India and Stand-up India programmes will be tested in the coming years.

The Mumbai rain-floods have shown yet again that it’s time for policy-makers to think out of the box and deploy innovative solutions. Each step counts, so Indians must join in and take a billion steps together towards mitigating climate change.

(The writer is Fellow, Department of Energy and Environment, TERI University, New Delhi)

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