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‘Make cities for people, not for cars’

Lounge speaks to climate scientist and IPCC author Minal Pathak about the ways cities add to global warming and how that can change

Cities and road transport are responsible for a bulk of global carbon emissions.
Cities and road transport are responsible for a bulk of global carbon emissions. (Hindustan Times)

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On 4 April, the UN’s climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released the third of its current round of climate reports. The report, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation Of Climate Change,assesses the present state of global policy to end our dependence on fossil fuels such as oil and coal, and also charts the way ahead for mitigation policies. This report follows in the wake of two earlier reports: one assessing the latest climate science and data, released in August last year; and a second report on the extent of climate change impacts, released in end-February this year. Those two reports held some home truths for world leaders, by conclusively showing the dangerous extent to which human economic action has heated the planet, and by warning how devastating climate impacts like are already here, and how they’re going to get much worse, very soon.

To stop this catastrophic spiral, the IPCC warns, governments have to seriously work towards cutting fresh greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by nearly half by 2030, and reach net zero emissions by 2050. The third report details the many ways that this can be done. Humanity’s goal, as every IPCC report has stated, is to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius (above 1850 levels) by 2100. The world has already heated up by 1.2 degree Celsius, and is on course to heat up by a catastrophic 3 degree Celsius by 2100.

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Where planet-heating emissions should be on a downward trajectory by now, they are actually rising. The new report says that the past decade has seen the highest amount of emissions ever. The world has a ‘carbon budget’, that is, a fixed amount of carbon emissions that it can afford to add to the atmosphere and still stay within the 1.5 limit. And that remaining budget, which is about the same as the amount emitted in the past 10 years, is nearly over.

What this report stresses on, therefore, is that the world has to start approaching the problem with greater will, more concrete action and with greater imagination. The current paradigm of incremental action may not be enough. But the report is not just about dire warnings. It is a problem solving report. 3,000 pages long, it is divided into 17 chapters that look at mitigation trends, pathways and possibilities, both across sectors and also with regards to specific areas such as cities, buildings, transport, industry and agriculture. The report makes it very clear, if only indirectly, is that the world can easily move to renewable energy (RE), if the political will is there.

Also Read: What the latest IPCC climate report has to say

Two of the major drivers of carbon emissions are cities and transport. As of data from 2020, urban areas contribute between up to 72% of consumption-based global emissions. Of these, 100 cities contribute 18% of global carbon emissions. According to 2015 data, cities account for 62% of national emissions (in Asian countries, this share is 54%). The report states that 68% of the world’s population is projected to be living in cities by 2050, and warns that without adequate mitigation, urban emissions can double by then. Urbanisation, the report states, is a ‘megatrend’ that is driving global climate risk. Transport, on the other hand, accounts for 23% of global CO2 emissions, with road transport contributing 70% of this. Compared to 2020 levels, the world needs to reduce transport emissions by 59% by 2050 to stay on track to control temperature rise.

Both sectors also present an opportunity for policymakers to take available solutions and change the way cities and transport function. In doing so, they would also reach several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ensure that people lead healthier lives, create more jobs, prevent thousands of avoidable deaths and reduce social inequities. The report acknowledges that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions, and divides urban areas between existing cities and emerging cities, with policy prescriptions for both kinds. Some of the main points the report makes is that cities need to be more compact (thus reducing distances between home and work), rely primarily on shared or public transport (which is electric and fuelled by RE), increase the energy efficiency and comfort of buildings and increase urban green and blue architecture (such as parks, urban forests, lakes etc). Governments have to put mitigation and adaptation measure in the heart of city planning and use, and the longer they delay, the more difficult it will be, and more expensive.

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This is especially true for South Asia, and India in particular, which has a mix of both types of cities. What’s more, according to2018 UNWorld Urbanization Prospectsreport, India is forecast to add another 416 million urban dwellers by 2050 (461 millionpeople, or 34% of India’s population, lived in cities in 2018). To understand urban emissions and mitigation better, especially with regards to India, Lounge spoke to IPCC senior scientist Minal Pathak, who contributed to the report. Pathak is a faculty member of Ahmedabad University’s Global Centre for Environment and Energy, and works on the subjects of mitigation pathways, sustainable development, climate and cities and mitigation actions in urban transport and buildings. Edited excerpts.

Climate scientist Minal Pathak.
Climate scientist Minal Pathak.

What is driving urban emissions?

Urbanisation is currently occurring in the form of a sprawl. So, with increasing urbanisation, you have increasing travel distances, which is predominantly more motorised transport dependent on private vehicles. This is adding to transport emissions. Another thing the report calls out is the increase production and consumption of goods within cities. This leads to more emissions.

Also Read: India's lessons from the latest IPCC climate report

Where buildings are concerned, we also see that the per capita floor area has increased. If you look at upper-middle income and high income housing groups, people want bigger apartments, bigger houses, which increases the demand for space cooling. Appliance use in cities has also increased. All this consumption within urban areas will continue to increase, unless we take a fundamental diversion from the current trajectory.

What are the ways that cities can reduce their emissions?

Globally, cities are very different in size, shape, form and structure. A city that is established has fewer options to reduce emissions compared to a city that is growing and is adding infrastructure. But three general strategies can be applied. One is higher electrification of the urban energy systems, including transport, powered by renewable energy. The second one is reducing production and consumption. And the third one is to add more green and blue spaces that not only sequester carbon but also provide a whole lot of other benefits.

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Say you have a mature city. Such a city would already have an existing building stock. You’re not creating new buildings, so you don’t have the option of making new, efficient buildings. In that case, you have to find ways of retrofitting them. There are spaces within a city that can be re-purposed in a way that can improve quality of life and improve density. This also reduces emissions. And finally, find ways to encourage and support walking, cycling and public transport.

Cities that are growing have the option to plan in such a way that housing and work places are closer to each other, so people travel fewer distances. This decreases the reliance on private transport. And they can also think of what we call “leapfrogging”: jumping directly to a more efficient technology. For example, an incremental approach would be to move from a diesel bus to a CNG bus to an electric bus. Here we are talking of the option of directly jumping from a diesel bus to an electric bus.

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If you look at smaller cities or towns, like the ones in India, they are still adding infrastructure. They will of course emit, because they have to provide new services to the people. But the planned infrastructure can be low carbon and carbon resilient. For a city like Delhi, it’s already built up. So there is no room for it to change the way its buildings were set up. But for a city like Mehsana, close to Ahmedabad, they’re still adding buses. So we can still think of new transport and residential systems.

There are more costs to this, but also more opportunities. If policymakers argue that mitigation is not their priority, well, human wellbeing should be. That’s why, for the first time in an IPCC report, we have a term called ‘People Centred Urban Design’. Think of making cities for people and not for cars. Otherwise it is not only going to increase inequity in the city, but also make cities hotter and unlivable.

Also Read: Why 2022 is a crucial year to stop climate change

The report also talks about combining mitigation and adaptation in the urban context. Can the two work together, and are there any trade-offs?

So there are areas where they work together and I would like to highlight these. Take green and blue infrastructure: parks, open spaces, urban forests, urban agriculture, designing for water sensitivity. These are solutions that can address both mitigation and adaptation. Because they address floods, they address heat, and they reduce the pressure on the sewerage infrastructure. This is one strategy that can definitely be adopted in urban areas, and we are not doing enough.

Cities need to have more permeable surfaces. The more concrete you add, the more you’re contributing to the urban heat island effect and also to emissions. If there were ways to replace the building material, even for urban infrastructure like footpaths and roads, I think that would be great. There are many such innovations happening, which the report gives examples of. Many countries are using permeable surfaces that are not made of concrete but mixed materials that allow for water to seep into the ground and reduce run-off.

Also Read: How climate change is changing the Indian monsoon

There can be trade-offs too. If you have a dense, compact city, but it’s reliant on private transport, then there will be higher air pollution. In such a case, you have to compliment the density with transport innovations. Otherwise, density alone will not work. Many of our cities are quite dense, but they’re so polluted because they’re dependent on private diesel and petrol vehicles.

Transport is another sector with a big emissions footprint, but it also dovetails with a city’s emissions. How do we use EVs to address both?

For Indian cities, we just have to add a lot of infrastructure, in terms of EV charging, infrastructure supply in terms of electric buses, walkable and cycleable corridors. These will have to be supported by policies, with subsidies. The transport section also talks about transport pricing, and is there a way to use economic instruments more strongly, like reduced fares for some groups.

Also Read: The Paris Agreement on climate change and India’s low-emission future

I personally think that we haven’t really done enough to discourage private car use. Unless you adopt some kind of pricing that discourages private vehicles, then it’s not going to happen. Just look at our very low parking charges. Even if a city increases parking charges by 20, people who drive cars can easily afford it.

Transport heavily depends on public choice. Look at the rate of increase in SUV sales. In transport, we made massive efficiency gains with more efficient cars, but we have lost all of those gains because of the increase in demand for cars with bigger engines and more vehicles in general. There’s a phrase we use in the report called ‘choice architecture’: the way choices are presented to consumers. Do I know what appliance ratings mean? Do I know what my available transport options are? Is the city clearly communicating the incentives of taking public transport? There may be schemes, but people may not know of them. Make it attractive to switch and present these choices to consumers so they can make an informed, sustainable choice.

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Or take EVs. Consumers might think that they would have to replace the battery in three years, and they would assume a frozen cost of the battery. But battery costs have plunged. The report shows that they went down by 85% in a decade, so prices are not going to remain the same. In five years your EV is definitely going to be cost competitive to conventional vehicles. I don’t think this has been communicated clearly to consumers. Right now, the only incentive is environmental.

Finally, the report also talks about countries shifting their current development pathways and states that reducing emissions and achieving development goals can go hand in hand. How does this work?

Theoretically, there are developmental pathways that countries take. So you’re on a particular trajectory, and clearly, this trajectory is not working. So you can make a slower shift to a different pathway, or you can make a more fundamental switch to a development pathway that prioritises mitigation and SDGs. That would represent a shift towards an ideal world with lower warming, which is more equitable and which delivers more SDGs.

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The report also talks about enabling conditions for such a shift, which is finance mainly, as well as technology transfer. But also equity and justice. In the report, we give many examples of such shifts, across sectors. Broadly speaking, such shifts can only happen through participatory decision making. Past patterns of mitigation have not really helped, so this is a new way that achieves mitigation goals, as well as basic human wellbeing.

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