Facing an existential threat from climate change, Mumbai, India’s financial hub has embarked an ambitious climate action plan that aims to make the city carbon-neutral by 2050.
It is the first city to set a timeline to reach zero emissions in South Asia, one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to rising temperatures.
In recent years, the coastal city has witnessed more bursts of torrential rain, storm surges and cyclones, in addition to rising sea levels.
Built on a narrow strip along the Arabian Sea, the city’s low-lying areas where millions of poor people live in shanties, and the city’s southern tip, home to glitzy office towers, the stock exchange and legislature, are especially vulnerable, according to climate scientists.
“Mumbai will become a climate-resilient metropolis,” Maharashtra state Chief Minister, Uddhav Thackeray said last month, unveiling the plan. Mumbai is Maharashtra’s capital.
The goal is ambitious — Mumbai wants to achieve net zero emissions 20 years ahead of the goal set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the country. In this decade alone, authorities aim to reduce carbon emissions by 30%.
The target is not easy. Skyscrapers have mushroomed in recent decades as the city’s population has swelled to 20 million, its green spaces have shrunk, and urbanization is continuing at a relentless pace.
The city plans key changes in the way it manages energy, transport, water, waste, and green spaces.
A beginning has been made with the transport sector, which contributes about 20% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is twofold: a huge push for “green” vehicles and encouraging a switch from private to public transport that is being expanded with new metro projects and more buses.
So far 386 electric buses have replaced diesel buses and about 2,000 more will be added to make half the city’s fleet green by next year.
“Fares are super cheap, and a single card can be used in buses and metros to ease travel,” said Saurabh Punamiya, a policy adviser on the climate action plan.
“Hotels and industries will also be encouraged to switch to electric vehicles,” he said.
Experts say shifting to electric mobility has become feasible.
“The price gap between electric and petrol cars has narrowed significantly in India. The only thing authorities need to ensure is that they make enough charging stations,” Vaibhav Chaturvedi, a fellow at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a think tank, said.
However, persuading more people to use mass transit will be far more challenging, he said.
“The trend we are observing is that people are moving from public transport to buying two-wheelers and then cars as they move up the income ladder. Across states and cities, we have been super-unsuccessful in stopping this because people are aspirational,” Chaturvedi said.
In a city where much of the emissions come from air-conditioned glass and chrome skyscrapers, there will also be a move to shift to green buildings.
“We propose that all new structures constructed after 2030 need to become zero-emission buildings,” said Lubaina Rangwalla, with the World Resources Institute, which is the technical adviser on the city’s new plan.
“This can be done by putting up solar panels, using energy-efficient products such as LED bulbs, recycling wastewater, building percolation pits to conserve rainwater and having enough tree cover to reduce the need for cooling,” she said.
Officials also plan to protect trees and mangroves and rejuvenate urban forests that the city has lost in recent decades.
Climate scientists have in particular flagged the huge loss of mangroves that not only act as carbon sinks but are buffers against coastal erosion and flooding.
Skeptics point out that trees are still being felled to make way for coastal freeways and underground car tunnels are being built to cut congestion in the city, known for its slow-moving traffic. Authorities say that the losses are being compensated for by transplanting trees and point out that the new roads will cut emissions by speeding traffic flow.
The biggest challenge, however, will be to phase out the nearly 70% of emissions generated by the power sector. Much of the city’s electricity comes from coal-based power plants, and demand in coming decades is set to soar as Mumbai’s population expands. So far there is no clear plan on how do produce more electricity and reduce total emissions at the same time.
India has set a goal to meet half its energy from renewable sources by 2030, and while progress is being made, hurdles have emerged, such as finding enough land to put up solar parks in a densely populated country.
Proposals are being considered to put floating solar panels on lakes formed behind dams on the city’s outskirts.
“Thirty years down the line, a lot of teething troubles that the renewable energy sector is facing will smoothen out and a lot more renewable energy will be generated. Besides solar, there are also options of wind and nuclear energy. Mumbai has set a challenging goal but there are ways for the city to achieve this target by 2050,” Chaturvedi said.
Setting a goal, he said “pushes decision makers to think along those lines and make policies accordingly.”