At a time when efforts should focus on enforcing existing codes to improve sustainability of habitats, the Union Ministry of Urban Development has decided to bring in new rules to address concerns related to climate change. It has taken the first step towards putting in place legally enforceable habitat standards to promote green urban development. Regulations and control measures are effective policy instruments, but new ones will matter little if nothing has been achieved with what already exists. The Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC), which could help reduce energy consumption by about 1.7 billion units of electricity a year, came into being four years ago. It remains voluntary, and is applicable only to large commercial buildings. Barring Orissa, no State has so far adopted it. Policymakers who argue that India has modelled itself on countries such as United Kingdom, which have kept the codes for sustainable buildings voluntary, are conveniently overlooking other innovations adopted by them to push their efforts forward. For instance, in the U.K., where about 42 per cent of all carbon emissions come from buildings, owners must produce Energy Performance Certificates of their properties put up for sale or rent. This helps buyers or tenants to choose efficient properties, which in turn ensures that the building design and construction are environmentally responsible.
In the absence of clear-cut emission targets in India, the goal posts for the proposed sustainable habitat standards remain unclear. This also raises the question of how to formulate regulation standards effectively. Metropolitan regions like Hamburg, the 2011 green capital of Europe with a population of 4.3 million, have shown that setting emission targets helps devise effective regulations and propel innovative urban schemes. Hamburg set an unambiguous goal to reduce CO2 emission by 40 per cent by 2020 from its 1990 base level and by 80 per cent by 2050. To achieve this, it adopted a mandatory energy-saving ordinance binding on its buildings, designed a public transport network that provided most citizens access within 300 metres of their place of stay, and created a 1,700 km bicycle lane network. The results are striking. The CO2 emissions are already down by 15 per cent. While comprehensive regulations and benchmarks are necessary, influencing major policy shifts to create sustainable habitats should be the priority. The thrust must be on making easy-to-implement codes at the local body level, and improve the supply of sustainable building technologies and materials.