While the Tamil Nadu government’s renewed commitment towards climate resilience with an allocation of Rs 500 crore is welcome, it is incomplete without measures to decarbonise urban landscapes and the energy sector.

Major road in Chennai with buildings on either sidePTI
Voices TN Budget Tuesday, March 29, 2022 - 19:08

The Tamil Nadu budget for 2022-23 presented in the Assembly earlier this month reflects a continuation of a fresh thrust towards climate proofing and disaster management by the year-old state government. In the aftermath of the unprecedented rains in Chennai last November, and the consequent damage to infrastructure, the government’s renewed commitment towards urban climate resilience with an allocation of Rs 500 crore is welcome.

This coupled with the announcement to implement an advanced early warning system (EWS) consisting of weather balloons, radars and 100 automatic weather stations could go a long way in averting loss of life and providing disaster relief. If implemented right, the EWS could possibly make Tamil Nadu the first Indian state to attempt a comprehensive regional weather prediction and disaster management system.

While the renewed focus on using the 100-day rural job guarantee scheme (MGNREGS) with an allocation of Rs 2,800 crore will provide much-needed livelihood for the millions still struggling to cope with the effects of the pandemic, linking this with an integrated climate proofing plan has already proven to yield results.  

The residents of Tiruvannamalai district created over a 1,000 farm ponds in about a month by leveraging MGNREGS last year. Each of these ponds can hold about 3.6 lakh litres of water on farmer-owned lands in 541 village panchayats. This is in addition to a potential storage capacity of 40.69 crore litres.

Tamil Nadu has 4% of India’s population and 6% of its land, while the state only receives 2.5% of the country’s fresh water. The state remains water-scarce for most part of the year except during the northeast monsoon.

While the aim of the initiative in Tiruvannamalai was to ensure adequate water for agricultural and domestic purposes year-round, it also prepares the community to face future extreme weather events like droughts. The district administration also focused on infrastructure interventions like creating mini-forests, greening hillocks, opening nurseries, sylviculture and pastureland development. All these put together can create a buffer during times of climate stress, when farm resources get strained.

A similar integrated approach where different departments work together toward common goals such as canal and reservoir desilting, reclaiming waterbodies on government lands, ecological restoration of 100 wetlands through the TN Wetlands Mission in the next five years, and increasing forest cover from the current 24% to 33% in the next 10 years through the TN Green Mission could create a robust climate mitigation strategy.

But a climate resilience strategy is incomplete without accounting for measures to decarbonise urban landscapes and the energy sector. This year’s announcements appear to lack a similar integrated approach to climate proof the state’s rapidly growing urban built environments as envisaged in last year’s interim budget, which even mentioned benchmarking efficiency standards for buildings.

As India transitions towards an urban-led economy with over 50% of its population expected to live in cities by 2040, decarbonising built environments will be essential as Indian cities already consume about a third of all energy that is produced. Moreover, the buildings sector globally was estimated to consume 32% of all final energy use, of which 19% came from Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emitting resources over a decade ago.

Tamil Nadu is already one of India’s most urbanised states, and with the creation of six new corporations and 28 new municipalities, the construction sector is doubtless going to witness major growth over the next decade. To add to this, the government has proposed the creation of a 62-km “development corridor” in Vandalur in the outskirts of Chennai in the current budget. The government has also relaxed Floor Space Index (the ratio of floor space to the allocated ground area for construction) along metro rail and national highway corridors, and has also decided to redevelop 60 existing Tamil Nadu Housing Board projects. These coupled with plans to construct over 8 lakh affordable houses through the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana for homeless rural families over the next five years present a paradigm shifting opportunity to ensure energy efficiency, low-carbon supply chains, and transition to renewable energy right at the planning stage.

This is not to say that cities have been overlooked in decarbonisation efforts. Indeed, initiatives like the Namakku Naame Thittam announced in the interim budget last year, to restore urban water bodies, build parks and carry out tree plantation drives state-wide, will create islands of carbon sinks within cities. And this budget’s focus on creating a lung space in Chennai on the lines of the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London – a world renowned 326-acre UNESCO park that houses over 8 million plants and herbs – will further the government’s decarbonisation efforts. These must be integrated with the buildings decarbonising efforts to achieve climate resilience at scale.

Another crucial sector that did not find mention in this year’s budget is energy. Tamil Nadu is already a leader in renewable energy (RE) generation – both solar and wind. But integrating RE into the power grid has been a challenge due to the variability of production. In his first budget speech last August, Tamil Nadu Finance Minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan blamed the failure to integrate RE generation into the grid for the state’s position as a net power purchaser of 2,500 MW during peak demand. The state could be a pioneer in deploying grid-scale battery storage to ensure its vast RE installed capacity is optimally used. For climate resilience, mitigation and decarbonisation to be meaningful, a paradigm shift in implementation of policies and practices is essential.

Nambi Appadurai and Bharath Jairaj are both Directors, Climate Resilience Practice and the Energy Program respectively, at WRI India.

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