Urbanisation took centre-stage at last week’s Rio+20 conference for good reasons. Cities collectively consume 75 per cent of world’s natural resources, generate 50 per cent of waste and emit about 70 per cent of the greenhouse gas. With no slowing down of urbanisation in sight, this consumption is bound to increase. It is now abundantly clear — as UNEP’s recent report on sustainable cities convincingly demonstrates — that unless cities become resource efficient and reduce waste generation, national and global sustainable development would be impossible to achieve. This is a warning bell to Indian policymakers, who have so far focused on the economic growth of cities and ignored their environmental performance. Consuming 40 billion tonnes of raw material every year has its consequences. The first visible challenge is the staggering waste cities produce. Conventional wisdom has been to find more landfill sites. This approach would demand more land over time and cities cannot endlessly appropriate the resources of their region. It would lead to potential conflicts and the loss of productive agricultural land would partly offset the economic benefits provided by the cities. Pursuing standard solutions and treading the beaten path of town planning would not help. Only a radical change in course will create zero-carbon, zero-waste habitats, which is imperative.
It would be impractical to cap the growth of cities. Neither is it the objective of the current debate. The question is how to transform them. Certain cities have taken the lead and shown a way forward. For instance, Copenhagen recycles most of the waste it generates and lets only 3 per cent go to the landfill. Extending the idea of recycling, Kitgum town in Uganda traps used water from houses and utilises it to grow food in greywater gardens. Cities in Malta have opted for a smart bi-directional grid system to regulate their power consumption. There are more inspiring examples. With the Central government dithering on commitments to reduce emission levels and the National Mission on Sustainable Habitats failing to offer anything substantial, Indian cities can no more rely on centrally directed policies and projects. They have to adopt best practices on their own and launch projects with clear green benchmarks. A good beginning would be to promote non-motorised transport. Even in larger cities such as Chennai, the share of bicycle trips, despite poor arrangement, is as high as 12.5 per cent of the total trips. Building dedicated bicycle tracks would significantly reduce transport related emissions. If Indian cities are keen to improve the quality of life and remain economically competitive, they have to leapfrog to become desirable green places to live in.