With the growing interest in sustainable cities, it would be good to see if Chennai can, if ever, become sustainable. Even though cities have become major consumers of energy and data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report confirms that fossil fuel-based urbanisation, transportation and industrialisation contribute to climate change, the metropolis retains its fascination. Millions continue to migrate from the hinterlands to cities.
It’s not just Chennai but cities around the world that have to seriously re-examine development plans to reduce pollution, carbon emissions and shift to renewable energy sources, if the planet has to reduce global warming.
Everybody knows and there is enough scientific literature and experimentation on solar, wind, and bio-mass energy. Recycling urban waste can reduce the strain on humungous garbage dumps. Then, there are electric, solar and hydrogen cars that could slowly phase out petrol and diesel cars. Energy-efficient public transport, mono-rails, and buses can reduce traffic congestion.
Of these, Chennai has pioneered rain-water harvesting and considerable efforts have been invested into creating bicycle-friendly roads and tree-lined walking precincts. This provides the city with some sort of sustainable blue-print for the future. However, why is a transition to solar, wind energy and bio-mass appearing a Herculean task? Chennai’s knowledge base is sufficient to address the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy possible.
Transitions in urban development have invariably faced resistance because the acceptance of change needs sound logic. Governments or international conventions cannot arbitrarily bring in new laws. Affordability, awareness, contextual appropriateness and sustainability are the key factors.
It is here that the German Energy Transition (German Energie-wende) provides a reliable framework to initiate a discussion. Germany has initiated significant and innovative policy changes, albeit through trial and error, reversals and tribulations.
The first of the moves was to invest in renewable energy and provide incentives to citizens investing in solar, wind and bio-mass energy. The second was to announce the closure of its nuclear plants by 2022, which is still being debated. And the third was to gradually phase out polluting coal and lignite-based power generation by 2040. The inevitable contradiction lies in the fact that, given the unpredictability of the sun and wind, coal (though polluting) is essential as a predictable, interim energy source, to support the complete transition to renewable energies by 2050.
Now, both climatically and socio-culturally, Germany and India differ sharply. For eg, solar radiation in India is more enduring and useful, compared to Europe. Even as Chennai analyses the German Energy Transition, it needs to evolve its own unique renewable energy programme.
What could be the primary concerns of Chennaites who want to shift to solar technologies? The stumbling block for both small homes and large townships is the high initial investment cost in equipment. The absence of subsidies and tax incentives, a reliable assurance of electricity buy-back by the Electricity Boards, a predictable lifetime service and warranty by manufacturers, clear guidelines to weed out ‘fly-by-night’ solar operators, and an insurance system in the event of a breakdown are the other deterrents. It is these questions, with an objective to control costs and improve energy efficiency, that Indian urban governments can explore together with German Energie-wende.
Environmental journalist Mike Bruce has often raised legitimate concerns on the social impact of such transitions, especially the possibility of large sections of society losing their jobs, as ‘polluting technologies’ are abandoned. Researcher Mattias Duwe suggests that a wider energy mix that includes solar, wind and bio-mass technologies can decentralise control to small and medium-sized entrepreneurs, making the process equitable.
A similar process in creating more awareness in bio-mass and organic waste recycling could ensure that Chennai reduces its garbage by over 30 per cent. The touchstone would be to ensure equity with affordable electricity to vulnerable sections. The transition to sustainable planning is challenging and can evoke new possibilities. If this dream of making Chennai sustainable appears daunting, remember there are a hundred cities waiting to be built.
The writer is an environmental architect and member of the Climate Policy 2050 initiative