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Easing a Data Drought to Propel City Climate Action

Imagine a government official working in an Indian state overwhelmed by a multitude of pressing concerns – solid waste burning, water contamination, air pollution. Tracking greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has not been her top priority. And then she gets tasked with generating a climate action plan.

But how can she get started on a plan that will have real impact in the absence of the granular data on GHG emissions from her state? She may not know how many vehicles are on the road (purview of the transport department) or how much solid waste is being generated (overseen by the municipal government). And even if she could draw up an action plan, she would not be able to track if the cities are making progress without a baseline year GHG emissions.

This challenge is confronting officials in states like Gujarat, Sikkim and Maharashtra, which are frontrunners in taking climate action. Open and free “activity data” – data on residential energy use, transport fuels, vehicle-kilometres travelled, waste, agriculture, land use, industry and others – are essential for city and state authorities to make informed decisions on climate policy and understand the impact of their actions on local emissions.

Addressing the city-level data drought in India will help propel local climate action. Making city-level data available will help in prioritising climate action. It will enable city officials to access data needed to generate GHG inventories and empower them to craft climate policy that has maximum impact.

Cities are important players in tackling climate change because most fossil fuel-burning economic activity globally is concentrated in urban areas. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities today. They consume 80 percent of the world’s energy while emitting roughly an equal share of the planet’s greenhouse gases.

It is highly likely that emissions of cities will rise in the future. An additional 2.5 billion people globally are projected to be living in urban areas by 2050, with 416 million of them in Indian cities, according to the latest report by United Nations. It is, therefore, critical that cities develop GHG profiles and determine abatement strategies that will help nations meet their commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

At present, very little is known about the GHG profiles of the 7,935 urban areas in India. There appears to be wide variations among them – for example, some might emit more from municipal solid waste, while others might emit more from the transport sector.

On average, major Indian cities emit more than 1 ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) per person, according to an IDFC study. Although this is lower than some of the economically progressive cities in the world like New York (6 tonnes of CO2 per person) and London (4.6 tonnes of CO2 per person), with expected high economic growth and resource consumption, GHG emissions from Indian cities are expected to rise. Therefore, tracking GHG emissions and including climate mitigation into the development plans of cities would help them grow efficiently while maximizing available resources.

In addition to a lack of data, there are two other key issues: a lack of capacity among city-level administrative authorities, who need training to understand and collect the data needed to calculate city-wide greenhouse gas emissions. And city authorities are loaded with administrative work so they seldom have the resources to pay attention to greenhouse gas monitoring.

Why should cities care?

In the next five years, Indian cities are projected to see the fastest economic growth in Asia, according to Bloomberg. Delhi’s economy alone will be 50 percent greater by 2021. The growth will place additional stress on infrastructure, energy access and demand, transportation and housing, which, in turn, will increase city greenhouse emissions. The rapid growth will leave the planet – and cities, where most people live – exposed to climate risk.

Access to nationally collected “activity data” would allow city officials to plan proactively to maximize resources and build sustainable, resilient cities that can withstand rapid population and economic growth. It would provide officials with emissions data so they can build GHG inventories and identify emissions hotspots. Using this information, they could develop mitigation plans while ensuring sustained economic growth. To maximize impact, these plans should ideally align with and contribute to the state and the national climate goals.

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