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You are here: Home | Environment | Urban India | Features | The role of cities in climate change

The role of cities in climate change

By Darryl D'Monte

The danger of treating climate change only as a man-made phenomenon that impacts nature's systems is that it posits the problem in some distant remoteness and absolves all of us of immediate responsibility. The facts tell us that three-quarters of the carbon dioxide in the world, which is the biggest greenhouse gas, is emitted by cities

Sanctuary Asia magazine in Mumbai recently organised a major summit on climate change. A large number (unusual for such a conclave) of participants comprised bankers, the chairman of Shell in India, and industrialists. At a smaller preliminary meet that day, Bittu Sehgal, the indefatigable editor of Sanctuary, set the ball rolling when he cited how forests were at the receiving end of global warming. As many as 6 million people would be submerged in the Sunderbans -- a few islands have already disappeared off the face of the map as a result of rising ocean levels -- and ten times that many in Bangladesh, which is low-lying littoral country.

He introduced Digvijay Singh, former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, as someone hailing from the very epicentre of the country. The uninitiated may have assumed that this was because the state straddles its geographical heart. However, Sehgal soon clarified that this was also because Madhya Pradesh has the highest proportion of intact forests of any large state, implying that it is at the centre of the nation's resistance to climate change.

Somewhat to my dismay, Digvijay Singh deplored the fact that under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), carbon credits were only available for afforestation and not for preserving existing forests as "lungs".

To use the protocol terminology, the former constitutes "sequestration", while the latter, carbon storage. The politician, who is admittedly one of the most sensitive as far as social and ecological issues in the country are concerned -- during his reign, the Pani Bachao Abhiyan in his state saw hundreds of grassroots initiatives to harvest rainfall using small structures -- appeared unduly optimistic that the CDM would come to the rescue of his beloved forests, when there are many other measures that could accomplish this task more effectively.

The former chief minister did, however, express his unhappiness over the fact that many naturalists were targeting forest-dwellers for causing the destruction of this invaluable resource. This is an age-old debate, which was given a sharper edge with the report of the Tiger Task Force, chaired by Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, a couple of years ago. The new legislation reasserting the constitutional rights of such dwellers to forestland has, for exactly the same reasons, caused a storm of controversy. But naturalists need to pause to ask who is causing the destruction of the forests on an unprecedented scale -- after all, tribals have inhabited the forests for aeons in this country. And, above all, no one can easily answer Narain's basic question: how is it that India's poorest people live in the most resource-rich areas?

The antipathy of naturalists to forest-dwellers was made manifest with a remark by a conclave participant deploring the infestation of these very forests by Naxalites. It is now well established that Naxals have a presence in something like 175 out of around 600 districts in the country and, what's more, have now closed ranks -- in sharp contrast to their internecine factionalism of the late 1960s and 1970s. While most people would condemn the armed conflict practised by these revolutionaries, the unanswered question remains: how is it that they have struck a chord among these most marginalised people left behind by India Shining, India Rising, Lead India and many other self-congratulatory campaigns of the upwardly mobile middle class? Left behind by the State, the adivasis who inhabit the forests, all the way from the outskirts of Mumbai to the fringes of Kolkata -- the entire swathe of central India, which Baba Amte has memorably christened the "cummerbund" of the country -- have received higher prices for forest produce like tendu leaves, thanks only to the strong-arm tactics of the Naxals. The only way to halt the Naxals in their tracks is for the State to recognise the rights of tribals and other backward communities to lead a decent life.

There was a disquieting tendency in the earlier meeting for participants to somehow imagine that the threat of climate change was "out there", whether it was the forests or glacial melt in the Himalayas. It is natural for naturalists to be concerned with these threats to ecologically fragile zones, which are very real and alarming.

The refrain was picked up by Ranjit Barthakur, who runs the Balipara Tract and Frontier Foundation in Guwahati. At the main climate change conclave that followed, he released a thoughtful compilation titled Natureconomics: Nature and Economics -- Nurturing Interdependence. He runs a series of green initiatives through his Mumbai-based company, Globally Managed Services.

Since he hails from Assam, Barthakur is obviously concerned about the future of the northeast, which he describes as "the last carbon sink". With his commitment to 'Natureconomics', a term that he has coined, he correctly advocates that the proper value ought to be applied to natural resources. Most economists, as the late economist Sudhir Sen often pointed out, are "resource-illiterate". If the tremendous water resources of Assam were properly valued to reflect their scarcity and downstream use, Assam would have the third highest gross domestic product among the states, as against 27th presently.

Indeed, this would apply to all the Seven Sisters and Sikkim -- the entire northeast -- with its huge water and forest resources. The only truly large swathe of tropical forest is in Arunachal Pradesh, apart from tiny patches in the Western Ghats, and these are the most diverse ecosystems in the world. The northeast is listed, as Prabir Banerjea points out in Natureconomics, as one of the 12 mega biodiversity "hotspots" in the world, implying that it is endangered (not least, nationally, by China laying claim to Arunachal!).

In another contribution to the compilation, Pavan Sukhdev, who heads Deutsche Bank's global banking operations in India and has launched an initiative called Green Accounting for Indian States Project (GAISP, under the Green Indian States Trust, GIST), estimates that the actual value of forests, if sustainably used, in terms of timber, other produce, eco-tourism, carbon storage, soil loss prevention, watershed protection and flood and drought prevention works out to a staggering Rs 500,000 for just 1 hectare. Foresters, on the other hand, calculate the average cubic metres of timber in a hectare of forest, multiply it by the current price in the market, and arrive at a figure that is obviously only a fraction of the calculation under GAISP. This is why ecologists paraphrase Oscar Wilde to allege that economists know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

Anyone attending the earlier meeting or the conclave titled 'Quo Vadis, India? Climate Change is upon Us' would be forgiven for imagining that it was the forests which were the main safeguard against global warming, and that the "first frontiers" were either in the heart of India, in Madhya Pradesh, or its extended eastern limbs. Just as the Himalayas arrest the southwestward onset of the monsoons and make South Asia the only true monsoon region in the world, anyone might assume that the forests do the same by capturing carbon.

Indeed, some bankers and industrialists at the conclave were gung-ho about the commercial possibilities of the country selling carbon credits. An official of Jindal Steel Works went so far as to claim that "carbon was a source of economic development". The Secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forests proudly told a session at the international congress of environmental economists in Delhi late last year that deals in carbon credits had recorded a faster growth rate than the construction or IT industry, no slothful players in the marketplace.

The danger of treating climate change only as a man-made phenomenon that impacts nature's systems, which it undeniably does, is that it posits the problem in some distant remoteness and absolves all of us of immediate responsibility. The science tells us another side of the story. Three-quarters of the carbon dioxide in the world, which is the biggest greenhouse gas, is emitted by cities. One has only to remember that half the population of the globe is urban today. Half this carbon dioxide is contributed by buildings, which need to heat or cool their interiors; the rest is generated by motorised transport, which is growing exponentially in this country. This puts quite a different spin on climate change: it locates the problem squarely in our midst, as urban-dwellers.

As a recent issue of Down To Earth, the fortnightly magazine from the Centre for Science and Environment, puts it, cities are "earthscrapers", rather than pockmarked only by skyscrapers. They consume inordinate amounts of energy and materials and are thus parasitical by nature. Cities account for one-sixth of the fresh water the world guzzles, a quarter of the wood harvested, and two-fifths of the material and energy flows. According to the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the most authoritative source on the issue, cities are responsible for 26% of direct greenhouse gas emissions.

As is painfully evident from city after city in this country, urban development here is highly unsustainable. Many of the most successful architects revere the ghastly monstrosities of Shanghai and Dubai; some indeed have put up dizzy skyscrapers in the latter. A recent BBC-Travel and Living channel documentary extolled the (man-made!) wonders of Burj Al Arab, the hotel in the Burj Dubai complex. The highest tower in the complex will be 50% taller than any other construction in the world. One of the hotel's highlights is a water fountain in the foyer, from the core of which emanates a flame even as it cascades. While the programme waxed eloquent about the ingenuity of the designers who could harness the molecules of oxygen present in water to put to this wondrous use, any sensitive architect who is conscious of the need to reduce the impact of a building would squirm at the very idea. The Palm Islands site in Dubai is shaped like the fronds of a palm tree and consists of reclaimed frond-like strips which extend into the sea.

Indeed, city-dwellers would do well to study their ecological footprint (for national data, see www.footprintnetwork.org). If all the productive resources on land and water were equally apportioned to each human being on earth, every person would be entitled to 1.2 hectares as a footprint -- the area from which he or she would obtain natural resources. Each American, who is no exemplar when it comes to sustainable development, occupies around 10 hectares. The UAE is actually one worse -- the world's biggest offender, consuming resources from far beyond its national boundaries. No wonder, when one hears that it is proud to host snow sports -- bang in the middle of the desert! Global architects like Sir Richard Rogers, on the contrary, are always conscious of trying to reduce the footprint of their buildings.

As for Shanghai, which Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh wants Mumbai to emulate, the less said the better. The high-rise financial district of Pudong has come up on paddy fields in the island off the famed bund or river front, but the buildings lack any identity and are enormously wasteful of energy and materials. China, in fact, is the very epitome of everything that has gone wrong with urban development. Only 1% of the country's 560 million city-dwellers breathe air considered safe by European standards. The International Energy Agency estimates that China will surpass the US as the country with the biggest greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this year; the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency believes it has already breasted the tape.

Thus, both Dubai and Shanghai are models that ought to be avoided as they are examples of environmentally wasteful urban development. Not that our cities are success stories. None of the speakers at the Mumbai climate change conclave made any mention of the need to take a cold, hard look at the way cities are spinning out of control. Two factors -- excessive reliance on private motorised transport, and the terrible tendency to go in for glass and concrete construction for high-rise buildings which tend to trap the heat rather than shield the occupants from it -- should be enough to understand that the problem doesn't lie out there. The fault, to paraphrase Shakespeare, lies not only in our forests and mountains, but in ourselves.

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007

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