The last 18 months have been among the most trying times humanity has seen in the last 100 years, and we are not talking of Covid but a greater danger — climate catastrophe.
The world witnessed unexpected events such as the heat dome in Canada, flash floods in Germany, unprecedented snow in Spain, extraordinary spell of rain in China and flooding in New York. These apart, forest fires in Australia have destroyed flora and fauna in large areas.
Where are we headed and how quickly can we correct the course before it becomes too late.
India has traditionally been deriving energy from biomass which has been highly polluting and a big source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission. After achieving Independence, the country embarked on building its energy infrastructure, which saw the construction of thermal plants for power generation and refineries for oil products. While transportation relied heavily on diesel, in rural sectors the kitchens continued to use firewood.
While the emissions were huge, somehow there were no signs of any disruptions in the climate patterns.
From 1980 onwards and, more so, after reforms were ushered in 1991, the urban-rural balance started to get upset and this gathered momentum each passing year. Pressure mounted on energy requirements in cities as more people were moving to cities and they required access to energy for mobility, lighting and cooking.
The cities started to get polluted and the concept of AQI (Air Quality Index) came to the fore. In the late 1990s, the Supreme Court, amongst its various judgments pertaining to pollution in Delhi, ordered that the national capital have CNG operated public transport. Today, most big cities in the country not only face pollution but overpopulation.
Construction today is another big contributor to pollution. And, increasingly, these big cities are becoming vulnerable to the impact of climate change; the wrath of Hurricane Ida in New York is a striking example of the climate vulnerabilities of big coastal cities.
It is a wake-up call for us a nation to change our energy mix, which is currently made up of coal (44 per cent), oil (32 per cent) and traditional biomass (20 per cent). While India does have ambitious decarbonisation targets — be it doubling the share of natural gas, achieving 500 GW of renewable energy or the recently announced green hydrogen mission — the pace of implementation has fallen short of the desired level.
India’s energy policy is increasingly focussed on solar, wind, gas, biofuels and electric mobility with national-level plans. However, given the less than desired pace of implementation in the face of growing energy demand and emissions, the implementation process needs to be re-jigged.
To achieve the national-level targets, there is an urgent need to have city-wise plans to power mobility through gas and green electricity. The city and town administrators should be held accountable for implementing a unified clean energy roadmap for their jurisdictions.
There should be incentives for the achievers, which may be tax breaks or lower cost of utility per unit to the achieving geographical area residents. Also, citizens’ participation from cities will be more forthcoming as they increasingly come face to face with environmental pressures.
India has no dearth of sunshine and a quick switch to solar rooftop generation can ensure sustainable and reliable supply of energy to power homes. Many tier-2 cities and towns have low-rise housing and these are amenable to such a shift.
Embargoes on polluting sources of energy at the local administration level hold the key in controlling air pollution. The shift to CNG-powered public transport in Delhi demonstrates what focussed city-level targets can achieve. It served as a model and set the ball rolling for the growth of CNG transportation in other cities.
The massive success of the Chinese city of Shenzen in electrifying its entire fleet of buses is another example of the power of city-based targets. Further, thanks to the high growth in digital connectivity through mobile telephony and broadband in cities, digital technologies can be leveraged to manage city services efficiently and, thereby reduce emissions.
Globally, cities account for 50 per cent of world population and 80 per cent of global emissions and are the epicentre of environmental stress. Targeting cities would not only bring focus to the overarching national plans, but also serve as an efficient way of achieving national targets given the concentration of emissions in cities.
The writer is Executive Director of a leading energy company. Views are personal