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Indian Cities as Sites for Energy and Climate Change Action

Radhika Khosla
April 24, 2017

Cities are increasingly seen as sites of strategic action on clean energy and climate change. The United Nation’s 2015 Sustainable Development Goals includes an explicit urban goal for the first time, and the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement enables new spaces to promote climate outcomes in national development contexts. The attention on cities in the energy-climate nexus is particularly timely for India, which is projected to account for a quarter of the rise in global energy use by 2040. This growth is driven in large part by the country’s ongoing economic and social transitions. Indian cities will host 200 million more people by 2030—mostly starting from a low base of development who will demand modern fuels, appliances, air conditioners, and vehicles for improved quality of life. Demographically, at least ten million people are expected to enter the Indian job market annually for the next two decades and cities will account for 75 percent of GDP growth in the next fifteen years. In addition, two-thirds of India’s buildings that will exist in 2030 remain to be built. Managing these urban transitions is a significant challenge in itself, further complicated by the need to address their immense energy and climate implications. Yet, cities are important sites of response to these complex demands, since the choices that shape their development pathways are yet to be made.

This particular aspect of cities offers, perhaps counterintuitively, a potential advantage for India since urban form, or the structural networks of buildings, transport, and streets, are some of the longest lasting components of the economy. The street and transport network develops together with buildings, inducing a spatial pattern that endures for decades. These spatial patterns, in turn, lead to corresponding patterns of energy consumption on the order of similarly long timescales. How Indian cities are built today will thus condition how most Indians live until the end of the century—the choice of building types, how they expend energy to cool and heat, the amount of travel distance, and ways in which they are travelled. These choices will have material consequences for air, water, congestion, energy, and climate change.

The lasting infrastructures and technologies, with analogous institutional structures, and resulting behavioral norms, is referred to as “lock-in.” Because urban spaces provide a physical setting for shaping preferences and practices, lock-in effects are not easily reversed. More so, once large capital investments are made in city infrastructure, the cost of switching to new infrastructure (transaction costs and inconveniences) can be prohibitively high. The current ability of India’s cities to determine their urban form is thus a distinctive window of opportunity to choose alternative development pathways that do not compromise on city needs and yet also reduce the rate of energy uptake. But this opportunity is only as useful as the early decisions that cities make.

We still have much to learn about how cities will negotiate the transitions of infrastructure and income levels. Consider two examples from the second-tier and rapidly growing city of Rajkot, Gujarat. First, while most building energy programs tend to focus on technology adoption choices (appliance efficiency or renewable energy), Rajkot is also focusing on the role of the building shell. Building shell characteristics and materials—chosen at the time of construction—are critical to reducing building energy use. The city is working on housing design to improve window shading, ventilation, roof insulation, and evaporative cooling, all of which will improve the comfort of inhabitants without increasing energy requirements. If built sensibly, the building shell can dramatically reduce or potentially obfuscate the need for additional cooling technologies, well after construction is complete.

As a second example, Rajkot is seeking analytical input that will help inform its future motorization trends. One idea under consideration is the development of public transit corridors, such as bus rapid transit, placed adjacent to new affordable housing developments. This intervention will provide residents with an accessible mobility option, and crucially, before they have purchased a personal vehicle, which has the potential to induce preferences and habits favoring public transportation. Alternatively, if the city’s transportation plans solely focus on improving vehicle fuel efficiency, it would miss the chance to significantly reduce vehicle ownership. The entrenched network of roads would make subsequent energy use and carbon emissions difficult to change.

The opportunity to influence urban form to reduce future city energy use, especially in India, is recognized in research literature. A Global Buildings Performance Network study finds that lock-in risk of final energy use in buildings (for space heating and cooling) in India is 414 percent by 2050, compared with 63 percent in China. Another study demonstrates that the reductions from Asia from urban planning that accounts for the interdependence between infrastructure, transport, and buildings, as opposed to only pursuing options within the sectors individually, are significant in reducing energy use and global greenhouse gas emissions.

Reshaping urban trajectories to overcome existing and often economically favorable energy-intensive infrastructures is not trivial. It is also associated with unfamiliarity and unknown financial and political risks. To do so requires an institutional structure that focuses on the interactions across sectors, as opposed to more conventional and compartmentalized sector-specific projects. Such a systemic approach promotes outcomes that would not arise otherwise, such as the synergies between public transport sites and housing locations. And importantly, it complements and reinforces existing renewable and energy efficiency policies.

Notably, a number of recent city level schemes are beginning to move in this direction. National programs such as the Transit Oriented Development Policy, Green Urban Mobility Scheme, Smart Cities, and Livability Index for Cities attempt to promote coordination and cooperation across departments in collaboration with the private sector and civil society. The stakes are high and their results in stimulating development and simultaneously preventing lock-in remains to be seen. If effective, city structures could (pre)shape consumption preferences and practices and significantly manage the country’s soaring energy demand. India’s distinct window of opportunity from the relatively early stage of urbanization already exists—will its cities respond?

Radhika Khosla is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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