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Activating subnational climate action in India

In January 2022, Nashik became the fifth city in Maharashtra to announce a municipal-level climate action plan. Now there are 40 other cities in the state formulating roadmaps for adaptation and mitigation of the climate crisis. Mumbai aims to become net-zero by 2050 and has a plan for it. Information Technology (IT) hub, Bengaluru, announced similar net-zero goals. More Indian cities will follow, bringing India — the only country in the G20 on track to meet its climate commitments — in line with developed countries where centre-driven action is moving towards a city-driven approach.

There are three drivers behind this shift. One, the growing realisation among state and city policymakers that localised actions are vital to tackling the problem. Two, 40% of the Indian population will be urban by 2030. Three, the increased outreach by international non-profits such as C40, World Resources Institute and Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) to local governments, is having an effect.

The enormity of these moves cannot be overemphasised. Per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Indian metropolises are up to three times higher than the national average of 1.9 tonnes of CO2eq. According to the 6th assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate crisis-induced heatwaves, flash floods, elevated sea levels, and humidity will make Indian cities uninhabitable without drastic measures. Technically, city plans contain baseline data, GHG emissions inventory, future emissions and ways for select sectors to prioritise action. To calculate GHG emissions, cities rely on tools that comply with the global protocol for community-scale GHG inventories. These inventories cover sectors such as household energy consumption, transportation, waste, industrial processes, agriculture, forestry, and other land use. Other emissions outside the city boundary, such as flights, also called Scope 3 emissions, are not considered.

But Scope 3 emissions have a direct impact on cities, so not including them means cities may not achieve their mitigation targets.

There are other challenges. Generating and monitoring comprehensive urban data is a Herculean task because of bureaucratic and jurisdictional limitations. Inter-agency data-sharing needs enforcement. The Mumbai Climate Action Plan exemplifies these shortcomings: To predict floods, the city uses the mathematical models of the Mumbai Maritime Board instead of the more accurate data of the Indian National Centre for Oceans Information Services, because there is no formal data-sharing arrangement between these two agencies. Most importantly, Indian cities have ignored financial mobilisation. There is limited use of municipal bonds, and almost none of green finance. Those that do do not link these to climate action plans.

Another issue is the misallocation of priorities. Transport causes 12-18% of emissions in Indian cities. City governments across India are procuring e-buses on a large scale for cleaner transport. But unless the grid is decarbonised, switching to an electric fleet may not substantially reduce emissions. Unfortunately, cities have not accounted for the impact of large-scale charging of electric buses on future electricity consumption. Indian power utilities are already collectively bankrupt and unable to even cater to existing demand.

Indian municipal administrations have made heroic efforts to undertake climate action, but they are limited by three structural issues. First, national and state finance commissions must internalise the climate crisis in calculating formulae for financial devolution with states and local bodies, based on vulnerability and mitigation goals. Philanthropic and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funding can catalyse this by partnering with city governments. Second, a subnational framework is needed to develop standard accounting, reporting, and tracking city-level processes and to safeguard climate action against political uncertainties. Third, Indian cities can learn robust citizen participation from cities such as Chicago and London, where individual and collective behaviour modification has been key to successful subnational climate action.

For any local climate action plan to succeed, coalitions working with state and city governments must pressure developed countries to meet their financial pledges made under the Paris Agreement of 2015. Public participation is central: In the absence of public support, political aspirations will drive planning and derail execution.

Damodar Pujari is the climate change fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global RelationsThe views expressed are personal

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