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16 June 2022, Hindustan Times

Activating sub-national climate plan in India

City-level climate action is gaining pace in India. This is crucial, given the country’s climate vulnerabilities and growing carbon footprint. Its success depends on mobilisation of climate finance, targeted devolution of central resources, inter-agency data-sharing and of course, public participation.

Fellow, Climate Change

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In January 2022, Nashik became the fifth city in Maharashtra to announce a municipal level climate action plan. It is among 40 cities in the state formulating road maps to adaptation and mitigation of the impact of high emissions and depleting natural resources[1]. Mumbai aims to become net zero by 2050 and has a plan for how to achieve it[2]. The state of Karnataka is close behind, with its capital and IT hub Bengaluru[3] announcing similar net zero goals in January 2021. More Indian cities will follow suit this year. This will bring India, the only country in the G20 on track to meet its climate commitments, in line with developed countries like the U.S., U.K., Norway and France where ‘centre-driven’ action is moving towards a ‘city-driven’ approach[4].

There are three broad drivers behind this shift to municipal climate action. One, a growing realisation among state and city policymakers that localised actions are vital to tackling the problem, as cities with their dense populations suffer the most and mitigation can have the most impact. Two, 40% of the Indian population will be urban by 2030. Three, the increased outreach by international non-profits like C40, World Resources Institute and Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) to local governments is having an effect.

The enormity of these moves cannot be over-emphasised. Per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Indian metropolises are up to three times higher than the national average of 1.9tCO2eq.[5] According to the 6th assessment report of IPCC, climate-change-induced heat waves, flash floods, elevated sea levels and humidity will make Indian cities uninhabitable without drastic measures[6].

Technically, every city plan contains baseline data and GHG emissions inventory while projecting future emissions and ways for select sectors to prioritise reaching climate goals. Most of these plans focus on nature-based solutions for adaptation. To calculate GHG emissions cities rely on tools that comply with the Global Protocol for Community Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories[7]. The five sectors identified are household energy consumption; transportation; waste; industrial processes; agriculture forestry, and other land use. Other emissions from outside the geographic boundary, like airplane flights, also called Scope 3 emissions, are not considered (see image).

Picture2Figure 1. Emission categories
(Source:  Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Inventories)

But Scope 3 emissions have a direct impact on cities, so not including them means cities may not achieve their actual mitigation targets[8]. Therefore, Indian cities must develop full-scale emission inventories for robust climate action.

There are challenges, of course, but these are manageable. Generating and monitoring comprehensive urban data is a significant challenge and a herculean task especially in Indian cities because of bureaucratic and jurisdictional limitations. Inter-agency data-sharing needs enforcement. The Mumbai Climate Action Plan exemplifies this shortcoming: for example, to predict floods, the city uses mathematical models of the Mumbai Maritime Board instead of the more accurate data of the Indian National Centre for Oceans Information Services. There is no formal data-sharing arrangement between these two agencies.

Although international non-profits support city governments, long term plans are necessary which empower ward-level employees to execute climate goals.

Most importantly, Indian cities have ignored financial mobilization. There is limited use of municipal bonds, and almost none for green finance. Those that do, like the northern Indian city of Ghaziabad which issued green bonds in 2021 for recycling of water, are not linked to climate action plans. Cities must assess existing climate finance flows, gaps, and sources of funding to reach their goals.

An issue is misallocation of priorities. Transport causes 12%-18% of emissions in Indian cities. City governments across India are procuring e-buses at a large scale to signal their commitment to cleaner transport. Unless the grid is decarbonised, switching to an electric fleet may not substantially reduce emissions[9]. A large-scale shift to e-buses will also increase imports of lithium-ion batteries and materials. Per ton prices for battery-grade lithium carbonate shot up from $8,000 in 2020 to $75,000 in 2022[10], in part because of pandemic and Ukraine-crisis-induced supply chain disruptions. If they continue, soaring prices might make large-scale e-bus procurement unviable. With China[11] controlling more than half of the world’s lithium-ion battery value chain, India must carefully choose its alternative public transport fuel.

Unfortunately, cities have not accounted for the impact of large-scale charging of electric buses on future electricity consumption. Indian power utilities are already collectively bankrupt and unable to cater to existing overall demand. As a growing population increases ridership, and more electricity is consumed for transport, cities will need to find ways to meet the energy demand.

While Indian municipal administrations have made heroic efforts to undertake climate action, they are limited by three structural issues. First, national and state finance commissions must internalise climate change in calculating formulas for financial devolution with states and local bodies, based on vulnerability and mitigation goals. This will be the biggest policy driver to facilitate action downstream. Philanthropic and CSR funding can catalyse this by partnering with city governments.

Second, a subnational framework is needed to develop standard accounting, reporting, and tracking city level processes and to safeguard climate action against political uncertainties. Third, Indian cities can learn robust citizen participation from cities like Chicago and London, where individual and collective behaviour modification have been key to successful subnational climate action. Education, citizen science and observation initiatives are useful to channelise public action.

In the end, for any local climate action plan to succeed, international non-profits and coalitions working with state and city governments must pressure developed countries to meet[12] their financial pledges made under the Paris Agreement of 2015[13]. Public participation is central: in the absence of public support, political aspirations will drive planning and derail execution. If India can overcome these hurdles, it can present local successes to the global community, adding weight to its climate diplomacy.

A part of this article was published by  Hindustan Times.

Damodar Pujari is Fellow, Climate Change Studies Programme, Gateway House.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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