Rapid urbanisation has enabled cities to become engines of economic growth and helped reduce urban poverty levels. But the same process has made them highly vulnerable to the severe effects of climate change. Although cities use only two per cent of the land mass, they are responsible for 75 per cent of human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions released into the atmosphere, making them the biggest contributors to global warming. To bring world attention to this disquieting fact, UN Habitat has chosen the theme of Cities and Climate Change for this year's World Habitat Day. The larger objective is to drive home the point that unless growth is intelligently planned for and energy use patterns are rethought radically, cities run a big environmental risk, which would make them susceptible to climate-change-induced disasters such as sea level increase and frequent flooding. Urban sprawl, combined with unsustainable transportation planning and energy guzzling building practices, has been the main source for the GHG emission. Urban waste now accounts for only 3 per cent of total emissions, but given the accelerated expansion of urban populations, increasing waste volumes could become a big concern in the conceivable future.
How have the Indian policymakers measured up to these challenges? A mission on sustainable habitat has been constituted as part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change. Instead of seriously promoting a green growth model and pushing for radical reforms in urban planning, the mission has been pursuing an ineffective incremental approach. It has not influenced any major policy shifts at the State or city level. Despite the rapid increase in commercial building construction, the new Energy Conservation Building Code, framed four years ago, is yet to be made mandatory, nor have the States integrated it into their building regulations. Given the present trends, electricity-related emissions are likely to increase by 390 per cent in four decades (UNEP, 2010) and could cost the cities dear. It is now established that every one per cent increase in the density of urban areas would reduce the carbon monoxide level by 0.7 per cent. Specific environmental targets have not been built into the urban planning process. A high-density, poly-nodal, public-transport oriented urban pattern that would reduce travel distances and encourage non-motorised travel has not found favour with India's city planners. It is vital that urban and climate change policies synergise at the local body level and a sustainable growth pattern is adopted on priority. Simultaneously, the resilience of cities, particularly of their poor areas, has to be vastly improved so that they can better manage the impact of climate change.