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India’s cities will continue to expand, but could we do that without emitting carbon?

Published On: 
Thursday, November 25, 2021

What is common between Mumbai, Berlin, Austin, Cape Town and Rio de Janerio? These are members of the Cities Race to Zero.  Race to Zero is a global campaign run by the COP 26 presidency and High-Level Climate Champions recognized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Race to Zero campaign was launched at the World Environment Day in 2020 to build momentum around international climate action by cities, regions, countries, businesses, investors and other organizations committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Net-zero means reaching a point where cities absorb all the carbon they emit.

Cities are at the centre of action needed for a decarbonized future

Various studies indicate that cities consume 60-80% of energy production globally and account for 70% of Carbondioxide (CO2) emissions.  A review of greenhouse gas (GHG) inventories of 167 cities globally found that just 25 cities were responsible for 52% of all urban emissions. There are debates and complications associated with attributing emissions from energy consumption and production within or outside city boundaries. But to simplify the identification of opportunities - CO2 emissions from cities can be broadly categorized as those from consumption of energy in five sectors – buildings, transport, provision of municipal services, construction of infrastructure (like roads, drains, and flyovers) and the use of products and services by people living in the city. In buildings the sector, both embodied carbon (from the production of materials) and operational carbon (produced from use of energy to run or operate equipment inside buildings or fuel used in transport or for delivering municipal services)  are important in the Indian context since our cities are still growing. The floor area of residential buildings alone is expected to grow from 15.3 million square metres in 2017-18 to 21.9 million m2 by 2027-28.

The buildings sector was said to be responsible for 32% of global final energy use and 19% of energy-related to GHGs in 2010. In India, buildings consume 33% of electricity. In cities, measures to mitigate emissions from the buildings sector can yield significant benefits like improved productivity, better air quality, reduction in urban heat islands and strengthening resilience to climate impacts. Global calls for action on Zero Carbon Buildings have grown stronger- with commitments being signed by multiple cities and countries to decarbonize all new buildings by 2030 and all buildings by 2050; and this includes targets for both embodied and operational carbon reductions.

And yet, buildings sector actions in Indian cities are too few and not enough. In the 2021assessment of 126 smart cities on the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs’ Climate Smart cities assessment framework, only one city scored five stars (the highest) for their performance on criteria on the thematic area- ‘’green buildings and energy’’. The indicators evaluate the implementation of actions to promote energy efficiency and clean energy in buildings.

Historically, the government has set urban planning and construction standards, providing the market pull for innovations by the private sector and influencing supply chains. As the largest developer of public assets and procurer of materials and services, government bodies, can transform markets to promote low carbon buildings.

It is also important to recognize that governments own many public buildings, including the secretariat, court buildings, town halls, schools and colleges, employee residences, police stations, district offices, taluk offices, etc. In cities, municipal bodies also maintain and operate an extensive portfolio of public buildings. Here are three focus areas for cities to demonstrate leadership in accelerating the transition to zero carbon buildings (ZCB):

  • Energy performance and renewable energy generation requirements for public buildings: India’s progressive building energy codes system includes both enablers of a ZCB- energy efficiency and renewable energy (RE) integration in buildings. The Energy Conservation Building Codes (ECBC) for commercial and residential buildings (EcoNiwas Samhita or ENS) describes energy performance standards and requirements for on-site RE generation from solar PV. Additional capacity-building resources developed by the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) and its partners seek to facilitate implementation by local agencies. E.g., the launch of ENS part 2 in 2021 included a building materials directory and a guidebook on design templates for incorporating ENS provisions in new residential constructions. Similarly, to streamline enforcement and compliance with ECBC, checklists, templates and online tools are available. Municipal bodies can mandate the incorporation of ECBC and ENS design principles, performance requirements and RE generation in their plans for new public buildings and housing.

    These codes have been around for more than a decade. There is no reason why every new office or hospital being constructed by an Urban Local Body (ULB) should not comply with the ECBC. To build internal capacity (or of their contractors) in constructing code-compliant buildings, ULBs can reach out to their respective State Designated Agencies (SDAs) to organize training programs and workshops. ULBs’ leadership in transforming their building stock will create a ripple effect in local markets- encouraging manufacturers and retailers to provide materials needed for code-compliant buildings. Mandatory on-site RE generation requirements for public buildings will indicate the government’s commitment to decarbonizing municipal building stock.  
  • Reforming public procurement practices: Changing public procurement practices are some of the most transformative mechanisms to influence supply chains towards low carbon constructions. There are ongoing efforts to introduce changes in the government’s e-marketplace (GeM) – the Indian government’s online procurement platform. For instance, in June this year, the platform added a category called Green Room Air Conditioners to encourage the procurement of environment-friendly and energy-efficient ACs for government buildings. GeM is accessible to state and central government agencies and ULBs to procure green alternatives to appliances and equipment. Additionally, ULBs can work with state governments to price low embodied carbon materials competitively in the schedule of rates (SoRs) to enhance their accessibility and share in procurements. The SOR is a comprehensive document used to execute electrical, mechanical, and civil works by the Central Public Works Department and several public sector undertakings. Given the volume of procurement, small steps like these can increase the availability and affordability of energy-efficient and low carbon materials. These SOR changes must happen parallelly with revisions to procurement rules and guidelines. Given the complexity of procurement rules, state governments would need to support ULBs by easing paperwork, issuing department-wide memos, notifications, and government orders.

  • Introducing embodied carbon and circularity considerations: Given the size of Indian cities and their growth prospects, cities can get a head start on introducing embodied carbon and circular economy principles in local planning. In the buildings sector, a circular economy would imply minimizing use of materials for construction through better design, promoting material waste reuse, recycling and recovery especially during construction and demolition of older structures. Several cities have already developed or are developing master plans. Since such plans usually determine the fate of built environments in cities for future generations, we could avoid the concentration of resource inefficiencies and high emissions zoning by embedding circular economy principles in the planning process.

Urban planning must set standards for carbon intensity and resource efficiency on layouts or planned townships. E.g., formulating rules on sourcing and procurement of local construction materials; regulations that fix a range for building height/density to limit carbon intensity. Some cities are doing more and specifying a percentage of recycled materials or components that can be disassembled, reused and recycled. For example, Austin, Texas, passed an ordinance fixing the maximum amount of waste that can be disposed of per square foot and a minimum of 50% waste diversion from landfills. To address embodied carbon, organizations like BMPTC can play an important role by helping ULBs understand and implement low carbon impact construction processes and technologies. BMPTC’s guidebook on utilization of recycled C&D waste needs to be disseminated widely and its adoption initiated by cities. 

By implementing these three recommendations, Indian cities could achieve a significant reduction in their energy use while also demonstrating leadership in accelerating the transition to zero carbon buildings.

The Blog first appeared in the special issue of BMPTC (Nirman Sarika). 

About the author: 

Sumedha Malaviya
Manager with the Energy Program, WRI India

Is a manager with the energy program at WRI India, where she leads initiatives on urban energy transition with a focus on efficiency in the built environment.

Kunal Shankar
Senior Communications Manager, WRI India

Kunal Shankar is the senior communications manager at WRI India and would be reached out at

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