How to Make India’s Urbanization Better for the Planet

Density won't be beneficial unless India rethinks the way it manages cities.

India made global headlines during the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) as one of the first low-to-middle-income countries to commit to a net-zero target. As the country with the third highest greenhouse gas emissions in the world, comprising around 7% of emissions worldwide, reaching this target is a global priority. While the move was rightly lauded, India’s new commitment highlights a challenge many countries in the developing world are grappling with: How can countries facing rapid urbanization manage their cities in a way that unlocks both the economic and environmental benefits of urban growth?

Much of the current climate conversation in India (and internationally) is a sectoral one, focusing on decarbonization in specific economic sectors: energy, transportation, agriculture, industry and the like. But spatially, many of these transitions will come together in cities. After all, cities shape the demand that drives sectoral emissions. And over the next 30 years, low-to-middle-income countries will add thousands of kilometers of new urban infrastructure to accommodate the needs of 2 billion more people.

For both residents of these urban areas and the world, understanding the link between cities and decarbonization is crucial. It is not too late for India’s booming metropolises to follow the path of other emergent cities like Dubai or Singapore, which are both recognized for their livability and efforts towards sustainability. But without intervention, livability in many cities in the Global South will only come through energy-intensive means, as things like air conditioning, cars and private generators compete with vulnerable buildings, crowded streets and unreliable power supplies. And, given the costs of those conveniences, comfort will only be available for the wealthy.

India’s urban growing pains

By official estimates, in 2011, 31% of India’s population—375 million people—lived in urban areas, mostly in towns and cities of various sizes ranging from 5,000 to over 20 million residents. But the facts on the ground look a bit different. Our own organization has put the urban percentage at 50%—a whopping 605 million people—if not higher. Such “unrecognized” urban growth is clearly visible via satellite imagery, comprising entire neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities that tend to be informal, unplanned and sprawl for miles unserviced by urban infrastructure like arterial roads, sanitation and open spaces like parks and public plazas.

Kozhikode Metropolitan Area - Build up in 1975 (left) versus 2014 (right).

We’re not the first to pinpoint this problem; in 2016, the World Bank described urbanization in India—and across South Asia—as “messy” and “hidden.” This is in part due to India’s definition of urbanization being narrower than it is in other countries. Weak enforcement also means some areas aren’t recognized when they should be, leading to some actors playing the system to buy up land on the cheap before it is formalized, contributing to sprawl that is neither optimized for people nor the environment. Meanwhile, the government is left playing catch-up.

Even where new towns and neighborhoods are recognized and serviced by the state, they are hobbled by outdated planning practices. In globally recognized livable and sustainable cities, like Barcelona and Amsterdam, up to 40% of urban land is in the public sphere, including roads and open space. The remaining 60% is land underneath buildings. In India however, cities fritter away most of their land; in Mumbai’s downtown office district, just about 24% of land is in the public sphere and only 22% in building footprints. A whopping 56% of land is used as “private open space,” typically underutilized space around buildings that is walled off from the main street. Imagine downtown Manhattan was 50% larger but accommodated the same square footage of buildings, parks and roads as its original size.

What the lack of publicly available space means in practice is congested roads, a larger urban footprint and expensive real estate. This is because significant portions of private land remain vacant due to regulations that restrict the amount of a plot that can be built upon, unlike in Barcelona, for example, where building frontages can extend to the streets. Plots of land have also shrunk over time, meaning that building density has tended to increase on the peripheries of cities, where plots are smaller, compared to the center. In turn, average commute times in Mumbai are double those of New York or Singapore. The gap between lower rural productivity and higher urban productivity, found in more developed nations, has also narrowed in India.

Environmental consequences follow. While per capita emissions in global cities such as London, New York and Seoul may be up to 60% lower than the national average, the reverse is true in India, with large cities like Delhi and Kolkata emitting up to double the national average. There is ongoing debate about how energy efficient density is, but density in the wrong place—in sprawling, informal and poorly integrated peripheries—is certainly bad. It leads to a reliance on diesel generators for power, unregulated fuel burning for heat, illegal and poor-quality construction, and intense traffic on unprepared roads. Debates about density aside, then, what is clear is that the ultimate driver of emissions in Indian cities is runaway and unmanaged urbanization.

Urbanization as it currently exists in India stands to lock the country into a high-emissions future, and it is projected to add another 217 million people to its urban areas between 2011 and 2036, accounting for 73% of population growth in India in the same period. Keep in mind the prevailing pattern: Growth has happened where regulations are weakest, on the fringes, as gradually informal areas have been absorbed as regular neighborhoods. Already, India’s cities comprise many of the most polluted and congested in the world and are prone to extreme heat and flooding. Unless something changes, those problems are only going to get worse.

For India to meet its emissions targets, it must rethink how its cities are planned and managed. Retrofitting existing urban growth, planning ahead for more compact development, and investing in the transportation and infrastructure that can tie together sprawling urban areas can move Indian cities to a lower-carbon pathway. These too promise a better life for its citizens.

Decarbonized cities, happy citizens

Beyond the form of India’s cities, cities’ economies play a pivotal role in enabling green transitions in energy, transport, industry and agriculture. Investing in the capabilities of cities to manage emissions in the sectors that they are a part of will be required if net-zero targets are to be reached.

Energy consumption comprises around 75% of emissions in India, with cities already making up a major source of demand. Their share is set to further increase, with energy demand in India’s buildings estimated to balloon by 800% between 2012 and 2047 according to NITI Aayog, a government think tank. Driving that growth is rising need for heating and cooling, and greater consumption, alongside the need for more buildings for a growing population. Making those new buildings energy efficient, and retrofitting old buildings, can bring down energy demand, reducing the pressure to keep old, carbon-intensive sources, like coal, online for longer. More efficient air conditioning, LED lighting, and sensors, for example, could reduce energy consumption by 17% in institutional buildings, and by up to 42% in hospitals.

Beyond buildings, cities are also the frontline of reducing emissions from other types of construction projects. In 2016, the cement, iron and steel industries produce 11% of India’s total CO2 emissions, and further urbanization promises steady growth in those sectors. What buildings are constructed of and how they are built will thus play a role in reducing emissions. Further, many of the businesses that comprise this sector, the smallest in particular, are spread across the fringes of cities and rely on inefficient legacy technology that produces excessive emissions. City-level interventions like regulation and outreach will be necessary to change the situation, through cleaner fuels or better boilers. Clustering these enterprises together in industrial parks could also improve conditions in suburbs by moving some pollution and congestion elsewhere and by providing emissions savings through industrial recycling.

There is also the question of the grid. Further integration of renewables, energy storage, smart metering and better management of distribution can also support the transition. This will mean retrofitting grids within cities, and harnessing them for energy supply, such as by deploying rooftop solar panels. Standing in the way are pricing subsidies, delayed payments and energy theft, which have left power distribution companies in poor shape financially. Micro-grids, a network disconnected from the main grid, could separate new neighborhoods and towns to manage their own systems. Removing companies’ state-wide monopolies has been touted as a solution too by NITI Aayog. This could offer freer competition, new market opportunities and allow for more city-level operations as is the case in Mumbai and Delhi, where commercial losses are lower.

Transportation is responsible for 10% of India’s emissions, of which 87% is from road transportation. With car ownership projected to rise from 22 cars per 1,000 people in 2018 to 175 per 1,000 by 2040, and the commercialization of electric alternatives still to happen, more public transportation is needed to provide an alternative to this demand. Strategies that focus on public transport, shared mobility, walking and cycling could bring the sector’s emissions down by an estimated 20–37%. But significant investment is required. India’s state with the biggest bus fleet, Karnataka, only provides 3.9 buses per 1,000 people. For citizens who use private vehicles, charging infrastructure to support the use of electric cars and two- and three-wheelers will also have to be provided. Meanwhile, the use of natural gas as an alternative fuel, which has fluctuated in recent years, is projected to grow in India. Although its use is a short-term bridge toward a greener future, in the long term the city will still need infrastructure for electric vehicles.

Lastly, one may think of the agricultural sector as largely rural, but its decarbonization is, in fact, closely linked with cities. Urban areas consume 60% of all food produced and represent 80% of the market value of consumption in India. A lack of cold chains and cold storage is linked with up to 16% of some crops spoiling on route to market. Wastage means that more must be produced than is needed for consumption, leading to higher emissions during cultivation, as well as emissions from what spoils. The central government has recognized that what it calls the “hinterland” of cities needs to be planned along with urban jurisdictions. Considering development on a regional basis would open the door to synchronizing agriculture to what is actually in demand nearby. Taking a wider regional frame benefits rural areas, too. Investments in missing cold chains and cold storage are more viable when seen as investments for a whole region’s improved productivity and reduced waste.

Decarbonization, with its long timeframes, can sometimes feel like tomorrow’s problem and the next generation’s benefits. But in Indian cities, economic and other benefits will materialize in the short term. Citizens can save on rising bills if they live in more energy-efficient buildings and if the grid is upgraded. Public transport can lower air pollution and improve commuting times, improving quality of life. Better supported industry will help lower pollution too and improve productivity and India’s agricultural sector, with its well-known subsistence and subsidy problem, could stand to become more productive. These benefits then will raise the quality of life for citizens today, not tomorrow, while providing real savings to citizens’ pockets.

Managing space, managing cities

Cities have to be part of the solution if they are to avoid being part of the problem. And in India, nothing will be more important to these efforts than better urban administration. Cities will have to monitor, understand and manage their “metabolism,” something that data and remote sensing technologies can help with. So-called digital twins represent the gold standard of this sort of technology. Deployed in places like London and Singapore, a digital twin is a virtual model of the city that uses both static and real-time data to help manage transport and energy in buildings, and plan for change amongst a range of uses. GeoDASH in Bangladesh, a cheaper alternative, is a portal that consolidates existing data in one place for public and private players to anticipate climate risk.

Tools like these can drastically enhance an administration’s ability to plan, finance and monitor the performance of the city as an economic, demographic and environmental entity—all tasks that have been historically neglected in India. Planning, finance and implementation are chronically weak skill sets in India’s municipalities due to a historical concentration of power, resources and skilled manpower at higher levels of government, a problem that is further exacerbated by the use of outdated technologies. Combined with informational silos and hierarchical governmental structures, the result is poor coordination at higher levels of government which struggle to effectively gather and relay information to the municipal level, undermining work across city-level bureaus.

Many city-level operations, for example, are managed by state and central governments though precise powers vary country-wide. This affects accountability by mystifying who to punish at the ballot box, whether it is the municipal, state or federal politicians and government. It also means that duties, like urban planning, can get shirked in policy decisions and departmental tussles too far removed to consider the ground impact. No wonder that 65% of India’s urban settlements do not have a development plan and only half of India’s major cities have plans to tackle rising environmental hazards. Urban planning failures have already been linked to serious water scarcity and flooding in Hyderabad and Chennai, respectively. Action has been taken to remedy vulnerabilities but, with rising temperatures and seas, the risks will only get worse. Not future-proofing now can be, at best, fought tomorrow with costly interventions like flood walls that can also damage the natural environment, or, at worst, lead to repeats of the past.

Empowering cities to take on planning responsibilities can enable cities to regulate and plan for the changes that will actually happen to them. “Planning for economic and social development” is one of the 18 functions that, as per the 12th Schedule of the Constitution of India, may be devolved by state governments to city administrations. Implementation of that rule, though, has been slow because it is optional and because of the fractious politics around land. Some progress is being made and it should be furthered.

But such efforts can only go so far as long as funding remains highly centralized in India, too. Transfers from New Delhi and state governments to cities often come with little room for choice on how and when it is spent. The little funding urban areas do control typically only covers maintenance of existing infrastructure. For cities to play a greater role in setting their local priorities, more funding should flow to them—not just through them. Tools such as land value capture, creating municipal bonds and a localized carbon tax can provide independent revenue. Some funds will continue to flow from above, but they should come with fewer prescriptions for use. State government should monitor city-level outcomes, however, to keep track of progress at this level, and penalties for poor performance can come as budget interventions.

Improved land management will also remove one of the key bottlenecks to efficient city growth. Rigid implementation of plans distorts markets, increasing the price of development. Under the old Mumbai plan, 69% of land use changes needed government approval and 22% went ahead illegally. Improving spatial management of brownfield locations, through revisiting land categories, easing land use change and digitizing land records, can help overcome these barriers.

To underpin a paradigm shift in urban management, improved data systems will change the game. E-governance innovations, such as “e-nagarpalika,” a push to digitize municipal services, are making many of the tasks handled by municipal administrations redundant and creating the demand for new skills and capabilities. An improved National Inventory Management System for measuring carbon emissions will also be required as part of India’s course to net-zero, as will local equivalents down to the state and the municipal level that can truly bring together economic, spatial and environmental data. Linking emissions with geographical and economic data will help cities spot opportunities and risks and allow them to anticipate, for example, the impact of shuttering a coal plant in a city’s vicinity. Linking this up with smart systems will allow for real-time data, unlocking the ability for cities to both plan for decarbonization and adapt that plan live—significant steps to India’s own version of “digital twins.”

Carbon-free planning for the people

Managing cities as the frontlines of climate change requires a paradigm shift that must be led by the national government while also empowering individual municipalities. If cities continue in their current state, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate estimates it could cost up to $1.8 trillion a year by 2050, eclipsing the $1 trillion requested by India at COP26 to tackle climate change.

Like in India, in the rest of South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa, poor local government capacity, urban sprawl and deteriorating air and water quality remain huge barriers to decarbonization. These countries too are predominantly where climate change will be felt the most, and so without intervention, the quality of life for residents will stagnate or even deteriorate.

Yet, it is not too late to turn the situation around. Strategic approaches, looking at how cities can be empowered to plan, finance and implement ambitious plans to tackle climate change, promise not only to improve the environment, but also to improve the quality of life for residents today and for the 2 billion more who will live in these cities in years to come. Climate change is a global issue, but success or failure to stop it will be felt nowhere more than in the cities of the Global South.