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Lessons to learn from New York City Bill

New York city (NYC) is the first city in the world to enact a bill to ensure that its emission targets are met by 2030. In a way New York city leads other cities in USA which are still struggling to get their acts together and by doing so world financial hub has shown the way for rest of the world how to approach the impending problem. The Climate Mobilization Act passed by NYC council last week is in a sense land mark event in our fight against greenhouse emissions. This has given the world an inspiration to fight, brought back the fading enthusiasm and shown a direction as to how to go about fighting the carbon footprint menace.

Going into the minute details, location specific solution and using stick wherever necessary are some of the highlights of these guidelines. For example, to lessen a building’s contribution of heat, the guidelines suggest using light coloured and reflective surfaces in building materials and on roofs, improving building insulation, increasing shade by planting trees and other plants, installing a green or blue roof (the latter is designed to store rainfall), and using other permeable surfaces that can retain moisture. The Bill requires around 50,000 of the city’s buildings to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050 by installing new windows, insulation and other retrofits to become more energy efficient.  To withstand the heat, heating and cooling systems should be assessed for durability; backup power systems might be needed, and passive solar cooling and ventilation is recommended. However, non-profits, hospitals, religious sites, rent-controlled housing and residential buildings of four stories or less are exempted from the bill in various ways.

The Bill also proposes closing the city’s 24 gas- and oil-fuelled power plants in favour of renewable sources and batteries to store excess energy. New and smaller buildings’ roofs should be covered in plants, solar panels, mini wind turbines or some combination of the three.

It’s too early to say whether the action taken by NYC will bear the fruit or not and there is not enough time left to wait watch the progress by the City on this front as the world is left with hardly ten years to meet its target. At the same time, we in India can learn a lot of lessons from NYC exercise.

Holistic view needed

There is a need to take holistic view about the problem, piece meal approach is not going to take us anywhere. It’s just like walking on a treadmill. The Climate Mobilization Act passed by the city council is in fact, bundle of 10 bills. In India too we have different Acts to deal with different issues relating to climate change. Multiple Acts and multiple agencies will see to it that there are loopholes to take advantage of the situation. Central government, state government, urban local bodies, development authorities and many more – all want to wield their power without taking any responsibility on their shoulder. If this is not corrected, no matter whatever Acts the government may enact, it is bound to end up in failure. “We lack cohesiveness and cooperation among different government agencies and departments and as a result various programmes fail to achieve desired results,” said an official of BMC who is closely associated with urban planning.

One size may not suit all

At the same time, we should not approach the problem with “one size suits all”. Within a city, different locations are suffering from climate change in different degrees. For example, in areas where there are less shades will have higher temperature during the summer than localities which are closer to greenery/parks. So, architects need to take these factors while designing the buildings to their clients. We need to provide architects alternative criteria to follow depending on the projected life of the building, the anticipated climate impacts and the location.

Not to succumb to pressure groups

Any bill of this nature is bound to face strong resistance from certain sections of the society. Even in case of NYC, real estate lobby was very strong and resisted against the bill till the end as the new bill raises the cost of construction. However, lawmakers were able to bring out a law without succumbing to any pressure. Whether we can do the same thing in India? RERA may be a living example in this regard. “Very fact that the government thought of bringing out a law of the nature of RERA shows that the government could take the real estate lobby head on. But the laws passed at the state levels are diluted version of the original Act showing that state governments may give in to the demand of the strong builder lobby, thus defeating the very purpose of the Act for which it was enacted,” says David Prasad, an RTI activist. According to him RERA is a recent example of the strong government determination getting diluted with the passage of time. We need to be cautious not to repeat the same mistake while coming out with new laws to tackle climate change issues.

Making legislative changes cannot happen overnight but is a long-drawn process. We have seen the amount of time consumed and deliberations that have taken place before enacting GST. Even in case of NYC, it has taken more than a decade to finally arrive at an Act now. For us, and for every other nation time available is limited, just ten years. In other words, count down to 2030 has already begun and we need to be much faster and determined to come out with necessary legislative changes.

One thing we should always keep in mind – nothing will happen voluntarily and this is more so in case of India. There need to be some sort of coercion (use some other word if it sounds too harsh) to meet our carbon challenge. Some provisions need to be made mandatory and our ‘right to live’ is not an exclusive right but it implies that we need to ‘let our future generation also to live.’

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