World Habitat Day 2021: Why inclusive low-carbon cities are critical for India to mitigate the climate crisis

Policymakers have to take stock of the material politics of the implementation of the low carbon strategies emerging in the Indian context.

This year’s theme for World Habitat Day is ‘accelerating urban action for a carbon-free world,’ and Indian cities are making quick progress in launching climate action projects and programmes. Climate mitigation and adaptation programmes have been in the works for a few years, but low-carbon strategies are only making their way into cities now. With pressure building up on India to declare a net zero target by 2050, cities will become arenas for experimenting and pushing top-down policies for implementing low-carbon strategies.

If cities become experimental grounds for implementing low-carbon strategies, policymakers and researchers need to have a thorough understanding of the undesired social repercussions and uncertainties, proving detrimental for vulnerable and marginalised social groups. What seems to be missing is a thorough social impact assessment and scenario analysis of the consequences of the climate action programmes in cities.

Reimagining urban transformation

Hardeep Singh Puri, the Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs, while addressing an event on ‘Equitable, Sustainable Indian Cities,’ two weeks ago, said that there has been an eight-fold increase in the total expenditure on urban development over the past six years (2015-2021). Surely spending towards urban transformation continues to increase with the ministry launching new urban schemes such as the Jal Jeevan Mission (Urban), Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0.

The minister underscored, how through the Climate Smart Cities Assessment Framework (CSCAF), the ministry is charting the pathway for cities to incorporate climate change policies and reduce their dependence on non-renewable energy. With climate action projects and programmes being implemented under various sector such as waste management, water, mobility, energy, climate objectives for cities are only now being stitched together and adjudged under the CSCAFs.

The National Mission on Sustainable Habitat, one of the eight missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), is implemented through the four flagship missions/programmes of the Ministry of Urban Development, Atal Mission on Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), Swachh Bharat Mission, Smart Cities Mission and Urban Transport Programme.

Various schemes towards low-carbon transition are being announced by the Central government, such as the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, under its scheme ‘Development of Solar Cities,’ has approved 60 cities, including 13 pilot and five model cities. Or the announcement for all new vehicles in 2030 to be electric, starting with taxis, e-rickshaws and buses and, eventually, private vehicles. In addition, various cities are taking up projects to achieve low-carbon transitions such as the district cooling project at Thane in Mumbai, being implemented in partnership with the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All and Thane Municipal Corporation. Therefore, it becomes imperative to think of these programmes not as piecemeal initiatives but as holistic city-wide strategies.

So far, a comprehensive city climate action plan has been explored through the Capacity Building for Low Carbon and Climate Resilient City Development project (CapaCITIES), where four cities — Coimbatore, Rajkot, Siliguri and Udaipur — mainstreamed climate change mitigation and adaptation into their developmental policies.

These broad schemes are surely bringing low-carbon transformation but the implementation is still at a nascent stage and the experimental in nature and such an approach without a city-wide framework and due attention to social justice makes the idea of carbon neutrality a capricious concept, creating uncertain future urban systems.

Putting low-carbon transition on the urban agenda is accompanied by re-imagining of the city for its cultural and political processes to bring about a transformational change. It is, therefore, important to understand and assess the implications of urban transformation driven by the vision and ideals of the low-carbon transition, particularly when urban planners and policymakers are just beginning to experiment with governance and bring about a broader conversation about the evolving pathways of low-carbon transitions. This re-imagining of the urban transformation through the carbon neutral pathways becomes a political act as critical local issues, discussions and agendas are (re)framed.

Carbon-free cities for whom?

The questions around ‘who’ is the city and whether low-carbon pathways will be participatory and democratic in nature, and who makes space for these democratic exercises are deeply political. Those driving the low-carbon development agenda are, therefore, tasked with the responsibility of ensuring the participation and representation of different social groups, through processes that are often managerial and technocratic, and characterised as depoliticised. The activities under the low-carbon strategies have great potential for re-making the socio-material fabric of urban areas.

The socio-economic consequences of the renewable energy projects are soon catching up with the Indian government, where there are instances of land conflicts, loss of livelihoods, destruction of habitat and damage to pristine ecosystems. Even in an urban context, there are concerns around access to energy for instance in Udaipur residents have protested against the planned five-fold increase in charges for water and electricity, which are part of the charges designated on cost recovery principles.

Instances of evictions under the smart city projects such as green belt clearance or city beautification have been seen in cities like Visakhapatnam, Bhubaneswar, Delhi, Dehradun, Dharamshala, Indore, and Kochi. This presents an opportunity for recognition of inclusive measures at the local level, with a more intersectional lens to be adopted for extremely marginalised communities.

Planning inclusive low-carbon cities

Policymakers and researchers are now beginning to point to the various fallouts of urban transformation programmes, such as climate mitigation and adaptation programmes, or the flagship missions under the National Mission on Sustainable Habitat. Cities undergoing low-carbon transformation will bring about a new set of challenges around inequality, new instances of eroding social justice and newer forms marginalisation. Cities need to fight this and establish a decentralised pathway to creating city-wide plans for low-carbon development, which gives more room for a rights-based approach.

To critically examine low carbon development in Indian cities, it is important to begin by empirically studying the stories of transformation, explore the implications for the city as a scale of implementation, and the dynamics of eco-gentrification, the political economies of energy use. Policymakers have to take stock of the material politics of the implementation of the low carbon strategies emerging in an Indian context. For instance, understanding the patterns of individualisation of carbon reduction pathways, access to energy, transport or low carbon retrofits, which have implications for justice and uneven development for different social groups within the city.

Who gets involved and how they ensure low carbon strategies fit their needs has to be understood as part of the implementation. Linking recognition to struggles over authority, those responsible need to anticipate how low carbon strategies realign power and knowledge, with significant implications for who is invested in those programs and resources, for what purposes, and with what consequences. Such an approach to planning can bring into view how the trajectory of change unfolds in practice, providing better anticipation of low carbon outcomes than institutional design alone can do.

Every year Word Habitat Day is observed to reflect on the state of our towns and cities and to remind the world that we all have the power and the responsibility to shape the future of our cities and towns. With India taking quick strides towards carbon neutrality, it is imperative that a ‘just’ transition towards a carbon-free world towards disruption of livelihoods and social systems in cities and make them more inclusive and equitable.

This piece was originally published in Firstpost.

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