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Climate Change Is Real. But Here’s How We Can Protect Our Cities From It

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“The blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge. If we can deal with this in the right way and have this informal mechanism then I think we can find a way of meeting what I believe is the clear desire of our people – which is to find a way of combining rising living standards with the responsibility to protect our environment.” – Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister.

We are running out of resources – and more importantly, we are running out of time. Our needs turned into greed due to our ever-increasing demands, and we are on the verge of exhausting almost every possible resource known to us. There is a dilemma about the availability of energy in the near future- the energy to run our houses, our vehicles, our industries and our cities.  This energy crisis has led many to think about the need of zero-carbon cities.

Why We Need To Act Sooner

Cities are the engines of growth.” – we hear this every now and then. These ‘engines’ also consume energy to run. The urban areas are the biggest consumers of natural resources and also the biggest producers of pollution all over the world.

If the planet warms up by a total of 2 degrees more than its average temperature before the Industrial Revolution, the results could be appalling. In the Paris Summit, an agreement to reduce global carbon emissions was made so that the 2-degree threshold is not crossed. The globally-averaged surface temperature in 2016 was the highest ever, since record-keeping began in 1880, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).

The major causes of global warming and climate change are the increased carbon-based energy consumption and increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – both due to human activities, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states. With our ever-growing population, our dependency on energy resources is also increasing. The more resources we burn for energy, the more carbon we produce.

Estimated population by 2050. (Source: UN Population Division)

“Global carbon (C) emissions from fossil fuel use were 9.795 gigatonnes (Gt) in 2014 (or 35.9 GtCO2 of carbon dioxide).  Fossil fuel emissions were 0.6% above emissions in 2013 and 60% above emissions in 1990 (the reference year in the Kyoto Protocol).” – according to CO2-Earth.

The Fifth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) quantifies the maximum carbon dioxide the world can emit and also still have a likely chance of keeping the rise in global average temperature below the two-degree threshold.  It also reports that the goal can be met if cumulative emissions (including the 535 GtC emitted by the end of 2013) do not exceed 1 trillion tonnes of carbon (PgC).  A gigatonne of carbon (1 GtC) is the same as a petagram of carbon (1 PgC).

Human-caused sources of CO2 emissions over time (fossil fuels/industry and land-use change), sinks of CO2 (land, plants, oceans and the atmosphere) All figures are in billions of tonnes of carbon per year (GtC/yr). [Source: Le Quéré, C. et al. (2016)]
Watch this video by NASA: A Year in the Life of Earth’s CO2

Zero Carbon Cities- A Viable Option

Human-induced GHG emissions are primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use. In the future, urban areas need to be powered by alternate energy resources which are efficient and recyclable.

Here, we are talking about one option of reducing emissions – conceptualising zero-carbon cities. A zero-carbon city operates entirely on renewable energy, has no carbon footprint and cannot ideally cause harm to the planet.

Significant climate anomalies in 2016. (Source:NOAA)

Efficient land-use planning and development strategies can help us reduce emissions, by providing options like mixed land-use development, decreasing travel trips, promoting public transportation and by promoting the usage of non-polluting alternate energy resources. Adopting such options will not only pave the way for sustainable development, they will also lead to lower carbon emissions.

The following suggestions can be implemented to achieve the aim of zero-carbon cities:

1. Energy 

Renewable energy resources will help in reducing the carbon footprints of cities. Using photovoltaic plants, wind turbines, solar thermal collectors, biomass sources, etc. will ensure that the cities are self-sufficient in energy.

2. Adopting the vernacular architecture using locally-available material

The local culture and climatic conditions of a place need to be kept in mind while planning. Heat islands can be avoided by the proper orientation of buildings so as to avoid direct sunlight, using cooler building materials, building shaded and narrow passageways, landscaping by using soft elements like water, plants and trees, etc. Keeping cities naturally lighted and cool will reduce the need of electricity.

Using locally-available construction materials like clay and mud can keep houses cooler, reduce the cost of transportation of building materials, minimise pollution levels and maintain the micro-climate of the place. These building materials are renewable and do not have major impacts on the environment.

3. Intelligent transport system 

Promoting walking, cycling, a public transportation running on clean energy, banning polluting vehicles, promoting battery-powered transit systems are some of the ways to achieve an ecologically-sustainable transportation system in a city. A well-planned connectivity to workplaces will lead to a reduced urban sprawl, shorter trips and a reduced dependence on car-based means of transport.

4. Promoting mixed land use 

Land use patterns are directly related to the growth of emissions. Mixing various forms of land use can make a city self-sufficient, and also make communities more inclusive for people to work and live in.

5. Promoting recycling practices

Promoting rainwater harvesting, recycling greywater for irrigation purposes, recycling and composting solid wastes are some methods to achieve the optimum use of waste resources. Waste-to-energy fuel cells, which use waste reduction and reuse processes, can also be developed.

6. Conservation and rejuvenation practices 

Spreading practices like the restoration of the damaged urban ecology, conservation of resources within cities in green spaces, lakes, ponds, and restoring the city from ‘within’ (rather than allowing it to sprawl into the hinterlands) are much required.

Conserving unused parcels of land within the city will make them more compact, thereby leaving more space for forests, wilderness and agriculture. The soil and vegetation in these places can therefore efficiently absorb carbon emissions.

7. Promoting urban agriculture 

Maintenance of community gardens, where, despite the lack of space in their own homes, a community of people can grow and consume their own food, is a must. Utilisation of roof surfaces will promote mixed land use, reduce the surface temperature leading to cooler houses and will minimise the need to transport farm produce into the cities. It is a healthy practice which promotes green growth, aesthetics, self-sufficiency and food security.

8. Getting back to our roots

Growing our own food, using locally-available construction material, minimising our dependency on technology, using our muscles for transit, being thankful to nature are some simply ‘city practices’ all of us can adopt.

9. Promoting ecologically-sound practices 

A growing number of businesses around are taking effective steps to reduce emissions, and are working for the betterment of the climate and communities. The citizens can get involved in promoting such practices by purchasing cheap and energy-saving technologies at home and work places, promoting carpooling, cycling, public transit systems and promoting recycling practices (paper, water, etc.) in homes and work places.

The authorities need to use zoning, subdivision regulations, building codes and standards effectively. The finances and budgets need to be strong and effective – and the authorities should have the power to absorb and implement these practices. Measures like ‘carbon taxes’ also need to be strictly implemented.

10. Awareness about environment

Using information, education and communication tools to persuade people to have a consensus about protecting the environment is also necessary.

Challenges Before Us

Zero carbon cities are not easy to achieve. However, there have been some examples of these cities like (Masdar City, Dongtan) which can work as a blueprint for future cities.

There are many challenges ahead to set up these cities. In countries like India, where there’s a development boom, the concept of zero carbon cities is vaguely connected to the proposals. The concept of climate change is still considered as a hoax by a number of renowned leaders around the globe. A huge politics surrounds this issue – and many vested interests are involved which often do not support people-centered development.

Conceptualizing zero waste cities on a large scale will be difficult due to this. The processes and mechanisms to curb  carbon emissions may be effective, but they are also flawed. Reforms like carbon credit merely legalise the shifting of carbon-generation from one geographical location to other. Lack of resources in developing countries to evolve such transitional concepts is yet another drawback.

Innovative solutions are required and are currently being worked-upon by those who worry sufficiently. The shift from non-renewable to renewable resources should be the response of every city towards climate change.

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Featured image used for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: Wikimedia commons
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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