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Mumbai Climate Action Plan

Going green: Mumbai's promising Climate Action Plan restrained by prevailing development policies

Print edition : May 06, 2022 T+T-
After winds lashed South Mumbai in August 2020. The city faces two main challenges: rising temperatures and frequent heatwaves; and frequent and unpredictable increase in extreme rainfall events.

After winds lashed South Mumbai in August 2020. The city faces two main challenges: rising temperatures and frequent heatwaves; and frequent and unpredictable increase in extreme rainfall events.

A home built next to the sea in Mumbai, a September 2019 picture. A 2019 study says that Mumbai is at high risk of being submerged by 2050.

A home built next to the sea in Mumbai, a September 2019 picture. A 2019 study says that Mumbai is at high risk of being submerged by 2050.

A tunnel boring machine for the coastal road project, near South Mumbai, a 2020 picture. Its construction has made a mockery of the Coastal Regulation Zone rules, environmentalists say.

A tunnel boring machine for the coastal road project, near South Mumbai, a 2020 picture. Its construction has made a mockery of the Coastal Regulation Zone rules, environmentalists say.

The Climate Action Plan for Mumbai, the first city in South Asia to create one, has many promises, but current development policies seem to negate them.

March 13, Aaditya Thackeray, Maharashtra’s Minister for Tourism and Environment, tweeted, “One step closer to safeguarding our future, and that of the planet.” The momentous statement marked the release of the Mumbai Climate Action Plan, a document meant to safeguard the city’s future from climate-related changes. On

With the release of the Climate Action Plan, Mumbai established itself as the first Indian city as well as the first South Asian city to create a mitigation plan for potential climate disasters. The brainchild of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), it was developed with technical inputs from the World Resources Institute, a non-profit think tank based in the United States, and the C40 Cities network. The C40 network is a group of 97 cities that represent one-twelfth of the world’s population and one quarter of the world’s economy.

The Mumbai Climate Action Plan seeks to provide a robust road map in the run-up to 2050, which is the deadline set by the city’s administrators to achieve zero emissions.

In his introduction to the 240-page report, Thackeray says, “A day’s delay in taking decisive, inclusive climate action is akin to adding months of uncertainty and vulnerability to the lives of our future generations. The climate crisis is no longer an event in the distant future but a reality unfolding in our everyday lives.”

Several reports over the years have predicted dire consequences for the region, especially for coastal areas. The most recent one was the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) A6 Atlas where predictions were made for the Mumbai region. It says: “By the end of the century, the mean temperatures [in Mumbai] are expected to increase by 1.5-2 degree Celsius under RCP 2.6 and by 4.5-5 degree Celsius under RCP 8.5. The maximum temperatures, specifically the total days above 35 degrees Celsius per annum, are expected to increase by 20-30 days under RCP 2.6 and by more than 40 days under RCP 8.5.” The RCP, or Representative Concentration Pathway, is a greenhouse gas concentration (as opposed to emissions) trajectory that the IPCC has adopted as a means of climate modelling and research.

But the one that has caught the city’s attention is the 2019 study by Climate Central, an independent organisation of scientists and journalists researching and reporting facts on the changing climate and its impact on the public. Its authors A. Kulp and Benjamin H. Strauss say that Mumbai is at high risk of being submerged by 2050.

Also read: Missing forests

It is only logical to assume that the process has started already. Experts have long argued that the inch-by-inch effects of climate change are already, inexorably, at work. It is said that even a 10 cm rise in sea levels can create a snowballing effect during storms. Waves that would normally be high during storm surges would get greater impetus and power by this seemingly tiny figure of 10 cm which when spread over hundreds of kilometres of coastline becomes a formidable figure.

According to the Mumbai Climate Action Plan, the city faces two main challenges. One is rising temperatures and frequent heatwaves, many of which are unseasonal; and two the frequent and unpredictable increase in extreme rainfall events—storm surges, cloudbursts, extreme and prolonged precipitation. Crucial to the solution is ‘environmental infrastructure’, better understood as planting more trees, encouraging mangrove growth, and planting environment-appropriate native species.

The city’s abundant tree cover has literally taken a beating with the new phenomenon of storms hitting the west coast. Tree loss has been huge over the last two years, with giant trees toppling in wind speeds as high as 140 km per hour. The response from the authorities has been to replace them with smaller shrubs that often fall prey to wood vandals or tree-hating citizens and do not make it past the sapling stage.

As anyone who has walked in the sun and sought relief from the shade under a tree knows, increasing the vegetation cover is critical to mitigating climate effects. Currently, Mumbai’s per capita open space is 1.8 square metres. The Action Plan seeks to increase this to six square meters. But given the fact that the existing 1.8 sq m is being depleted in favour of large infrastructure projects, increasing vegetative cover to six sq m is a pipe dream. The Action Plan is, however, gung-ho, saying the spread of vegetation will “increase flood and heat resilience, make space available for physical activity and improve public health as co-benefits”.

The BMC also plans to focus on another bit of grandmotherly wisdom—reduce, reuse, recycle. The obvious beneficiaries would be landfills and a reduction in the greenhouse gases that these emit.

The Action Plan also promises to “improve reliability, interconnectivity, accessibility, safety and information delivery of public transport services” and “access to non-motorised transport and infrastructure”. It has lined up its priorities for the next three years. These include conducting an audit of the existing pedestrian infrastructure by next year to check their percentage coverage, see if there are encroachments, check on lighting, and so on.

Also read: Killer lifelineIn fact, plans are afoot to implement pilot pedestrian projects in areas with high footfall such as Kala Ghoda, which is like a heritage art district in south Mumbai. Ramps for ease of access for the handicapped, location-appropriate street furniture and climate-friendly lighting are all part of the plan. While street furniture may seem frivolous in a climate action plan, it has been included with the overall idea of encouraging people to spend time outdoors and appreciate their environment. A multi-stakeholder, non-motorised transport cell will also be created in the Transport Department within the next two years.

There is a slight overlap of concerns in the Action Plan. Air pollution finds mention in the report stating that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is one of the major pollutants, with “most of the monitoring stations [having] recorded a high concentration of this for the years 2010-2020, beyond the annual permissible limit of 40 µg/m3”. The BMC is in the process of surveying which areas of the city are the most affected. Apart from health, the larger picture here looks at the effects of NO2 on climate. NO2, which is primarily created from the burning of fuel, is 300 times noxious than carbon dioxide (CO2). It also erodes the ozone layer. Climate scientists believe that since it has a shorter lifespan than CO2, focussing on reducing it would have a faster and more meaningful impact on global warming.

As always there is a thorn in the best-intentioned plans, and in this instance it is the curious case of the coastal road. The BMC’s much-vaunted dream is a Rs.12,750 crore project that loops over sea, over land, underground and undersea all along the western coast of Mumbai, finally connecting the northern suburb of Versova with south Mumbai. Its construction has made a mockery of the Coastal Regulation Zone rules. Rampant reclamation, mass destruction of littoral zones that had thriving sea life, and the elbowing aside of fishing zones had led to citizen anger at the project. But, as is commonly the case, the government forged ahead. Traffic bottles necks when high-speed traffic comes off the bridges and tunnels are just one of the expected traumas citizens are gearing up to endure, but matters are more serious than that in terms of climate change.

The IPCC has called it “maladaptive”, and Mumbai’s proactive citizens have written a detailed letter proposing slight realignments. They have suggested “as many open spaces to the seaside as possible”. This, they said, would enable a world-class waterfront open to all citizens while “retaining the much necessary vista on to the open uncluttered horizon; the addition of continuous bicycle paths along the length of the reclamation would allow one to cycle along the entire length of the city, thereby reducing the load on the road; as well as public transport on the north-south corridors on the west side”.

The proposed changes were an attempt to make the best of a bad deal, but they were met with silence. So, while the Mumbai Climate Action Plan has raised many hurrahs, a shadow of doubt lies across it when the coastal road—the biggest change to the city’s coastline—is not handled in a manner that validates its mandate of mitigating climate change and securing Mumbai’s future. In fact, as of now the city’s overall development plan is antithetical to any action to combat climate change.

Dire consequences

Two challenges

Transport infrastructure

Air pollution