Decentralized Approach to Fighting Climate Change

Climate Change is the defining issue of our time and we are at the most critical moment to address the challenges. From shifting weather patterns that threaten food production, to rising sea levels and heat waves, the impacts of climate change are global in scope and unprecedented in scale. However, efforts at the global platforms have not sought to bring significant improvements in the climate. According to the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, the expected increase in temperature is around 2.6 degrees – 4.8 degrees by the end of the century. This shows a glaring failure of world leadership when faced with the most urgent life-saving tasks.

Recently, environmental economists have been emphasizing that local governments should be at the forefront in mitigating and adapting to climate change. Local governments bodies (LGBs) play a crucial role in many ways – firstly, potential to make necessary direct intervention with the citizens; therefore, adoption policy can be tested and implemented extensively by strengthening local governments. Second, their decisions directly affect the environment, such as regulation of transportation, building construction, spatial planning, and economic matters. Thirdly, it plays an important role in mitigating climate change by framing region-based approach policies A more decentralized method is likely to minimize the errors and will define a more inclusive aspect to combat climate change. 

Dealing with Climate Change during Pandemic

Coronavirus pandemic has hit humankind hard, mounting pressure is placed on the public health system and economic growth. However, there are few unintentional positive externalities that have come out of the crisis. Soon after countries started imposing lockdown satellite images of various countries showed dropping levels of greenhouse gas emissions. This has given us a chance to relate COVID-19 crisis with the climate change crisis. A Stanford study shows that large scale deforestation increases human-animal contact and as a result chances of virus transmission from animal to human have increased. 

Worldwide 4.5-7 million people died last year due to air pollution and death toll due to coronavirus is 487,996 as of today when the author is writing this article. The social and economic lockdown has shown that people can breathe in cleaner air, pollution levels can be decreased to meet global emission reduction targets. The current pandemic crisis does give us a chance to build a more sustainable future. 

In order to tackle climate change governments cannot resort to long term lockdown but it can go for a structural transformation which focuses on climate sensitive development. Such kind of development should be implemented in bottom-up fashion where local government bodies in cities are empowered. It will also be expansionary in nature as widening the scope of local government will lead to more job opportunities for people in their native cities. The following section focuses on the role of local government in fighting climate in global and Indian context. 

Role of Urban Local Bodies

Urban areas are home to more than half of the world’s population and are responsible for around three quarters of global energy use and energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, the cities play an important role in fighting climate emergencies. With the exception of China, Asian cities have largely neglected research on climate change. There is a growing body of literature that examines the role that local governments play in addressing climate change. 

The current literature majorly focuses on the role (as mentioned earlier) and constraints faced by Local Government Bodies (LGBs) in cities in context of climate change. While LGBs play a crucial role in tackling the climate related problems, it comes with its own challenges. There are a lot of officials that do not consider climate change as a serious threat to the environment. In the case of New Zealand, some officials did not prioritize climate change as a work requiring attention at the moment. However, a study of Dutch local government shows a mirror image. They considered climate change as their top most priority. Implementation of climate change adaptation policies at the local level is hampered by institutional inertia. The policy framework in which local government operates is largely imposed by higher levels of governance, such as provincial, state and nation. Other major challenges that were noted in the survey of literature are resource (economic and technical) constraints, and lack of information and unavailability of data.

Review on India’s Local Governance 

India’s National Action Plan on climate change explicitly focuses on development needs with co-benefits for addressing climate change, emphasizing the relative importance of economic growth. There are various missions under this action plan such as, The National Solar Mission, The National Mission on Enhanced energy Efficiency, The National Mission on Sustainable Habitat and many more. Similarly, the states were also asked to make their own action plans which are generally known as State Action Plan on Climate Change (SPACC).

In the 73rd and 74th amendments to India’s constitution in 1992, greater local governance powers in health and education were assigned to municipal governments. It includes the right to raise revenues, pursue social justice policies and to direct economic development. However, the city’s scope for taking action still remains limited since the amendments of the constitution have not been effectively implemented.

In Kolkata, the municipal authorities and development agencies were able to build institutional capacities for action in areas such as waste management as the powers in these areas were devolved to the municipal level. The decentralized governance to local councils increases the scope for the Kolkata Municipal Development Agency to plan and manage urban development. 

State-level participation in national schemes remains uneven: for example, many states have not established credible renewable energy targets despite a national goal of 15%, while the Energy Conservation Building Code has only been implemented in 8 of 29 states. Climate change policies still tend to overwhelmingly be sector-based rather than cross sectoral. Mitigation and adaptation have not meaningfully been mainstreamed into spatial planning compared with other megacities in India such as Mumbai and Delhi. Even in the case of West Bengal, their State Climate Change Action Plan remains the authoritative climate policy document for the city. Although local solutions like green building standards, more efficient appliances have all proved to be beneficial. Another issue is the scarcity of literature. Therefore, it becomes very important that an in-depth research is conducted in Indian cities. The proposed study will focus on understanding and analyzing the role of local government institutions in Delhi in the context of climate change.

When the decision-making authority is close to ground, they can come up with innovative solutions which can be locally implemented and locally adopted. During lockdown a number of ideal models came in the highlight to contain the virus such as Hazaribagh in Jharkhand, and Bhilwara model in Rajasthan. 
Similarly, in order to fight a decadal long climate change crisis, it is at the local level that many creative policy ideas can be developed. The existence of a myriad of local co-benefits gives rise to the opportunity to craft policies that addresses multiple concerns simultaneously.

To adequately plan and adapt to these challenges, local government needs to show leadership in two core areas, first to push for reform at intergovernmental cooperation to enable changes in the planning frameworks and second, to embed climate change policies into a wider range of council functions.

Arsh Arora
Economics graduate and an independent researcher with interest in public policy and governance.