Urban planners have critical role in decreasing carbon emissions due to construction: Dikshu C Kukreja

‘The real estate and construction industry is certainly one of the largest contributing sectors in carbon emissions around the world, especially in developing countries such as India. ‘

The “Climate Emergency” continues to represent a renewed worldwide emphasis on tackling climate change. While there is no “one solution” to the multifaceted challenges brought about by this crisis, there is an onus on every citizen, in both a personal and professional capacity, to apply their skills and actions in addressing the profound pressures on the natural world. People who are involved in the design of buildings and cities, like architects, urbanists, or citizens, should be more aware of their responsibility, and design for, the impact of climate change. The architectural community needs to plan the flows of materials, energy, and ideas that relate to climate change, both causes, and solutions, as with 36% of global energy devoted to buildings and 8% of global emissions caused by cement alone, we have to look for alternatives for a better and greener future. The Financial Express Online spoke with Ar. Dikshu C Kukreja, M. Arch. (Urban Design), Harvard University, USA and Managing Principal, C P Kukreja Architects, New Delhi about India’s plan to reduce carbon footprint, the Net Zero Carbon Goal and how to ensure sustainable construction for urban planners and architects. Excerpts:

What do you think about PM Modi’s five-point plan or ‘Panchamrit’ to reduce carbon footprint?

Prime Minister Modi’s five-point or the Panchamrit plan is extremely holistic and comes at an appropriate time. This program covers the aspects that range from increasing the non-fossil energy capacity to 500 gigawatts (GW) by 2030, fulfilling 50 per cent of energy requirements from renewable sources, reducing carbon intensity of economy by 45 per cent and reducing total projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes in the next nine years, to finally concluding with India becoming a net-zero nation by 2070. These, in a large manner, will help redesign strategies in different sectors, especially construction and engineering that need reworking in the coming years to reduce carbon footprint. Factors such as introduction of natural light and ventilation in a space and use of eco-materials are not only great for the environment but help with one’s emotional and mental wellbeing as well. We have been sitting for centuries to achieve these goals, unable to meet them. At the moment, however, through the advancements achieved in technology, we have been able to create green fuel and green hydrogen as well as harness energy from natural resources in our surroundings, giving us easy access and processes to reduce carbon emissions.

Do you think India can Reach Net Zero Carbon Goal by 2070 as projected in cop26?

In sectors such as agriculture, industry, manufacturing, transportation and construction, there are existing technologies that can be easily incorporated. The challenge lies in the fact that as a developing nation, our energy needs are only set to rise for the next couple of decades. Therefore, these technologies are required to be adaptive, more affordable and accessible to all in order for a holistic growth. Also, in order to achieve the goal of 2070, the intermediate targets set for 2030, 2050, etc. serve as interim milestones to reflect on the goals which have been achieved rather than waiting out for another half a century to assess the success and failure of policies.

The real estate and construction industry leaves behind most of the carbon footprint, how far behind are we from the developed countries? As an industry expert, what new age practices do you suggest to lower that?

The real estate and construction industry is certainly one of the largest contributing sectors in carbon emissions around the world, especially in developing countries such as India. One of the main reasons for this has been that we have still not been able to provide people with basic amenities such as proper and affordable shelter, hygiene, healthcare, transport or even gas connections for cooking. So, when this has been the majority state of affairs in the country, the priority has been that in the least time and a cost-effective manner, deliver construction for housing and public infrastructure. Therefore, in that endeavour, solutions for green design and implementation of renewable energy become less of a priority. This is where we need a change and understand that we have to have a different mindset towards CapEx, even if it results in a slight increase of capital expenditure but reduces the overall expenditure over time, subsequently, helping in achieving the carbon neutrality we are trying to meet. There is no doubt that there needs to be a change in the real estate and construction industry. There are plenty of choices in construction, materiality, design and planning that puts our country at par with the world; the only need of the hour is to prioritise these and build it into the costing mechanism of the projects as well so they become a norm. For this, the government also needs to come forward and introduce innovative policies such as Transfer of Development Rights, enhanced FAR which are given to the private sector, will certainly motivate the real estate and construction industry to adopt carbon neutral measures.

Calling for lifestyle changes at cop26, PM Modi said that environmentally conscious lifestyle choices could go a long way in tackling climate change. He urged to make ‘Lifestyle for Environment’ a global mission. Do you think the concept of ‘lifestyle for environment’ practice is feasible in the long run?

I think the call to make ‘Lifestyle for Environment’ a global mission is the most innovative and welcome move. Unless one sensitises the public at-large on how certain lifestyle choices can harm the environment in the long term, the effort will not be as effective as we are projecting it to be. From that point of view, it is not only the technology and green practices but it is now a mission where every global citizen realises the importance of contribution at an individual level. We cannot have a top-down government’s decision, globally. It has to be changed from bottom up where a self-realisation will go a long way in helping all these global goals. Lifestyle also means every aspect of our lifestyle – whether it is our commute, our homes, public spaces, food, clothes, etc., for the success of this mission.

Do you think that more awareness needs to be created at a grassroots level to decrease carbon footprints?

Yes, certainly as this is affecting every citizen across the globe. It is not about being limited to island nations or developing nations only, it is affecting everyone irrespective of their location, their economic strata of society.  Therefore, I really feel awareness has to be more at an individual level rather than through a top-down policy approach.

As an urban planner, what is your message for aspiring urban planners to keep a check on carbon emissions?

As an urban planner I feel that we play a critical role since urban areas around the world are one of the largest contributing factors towards pollution of any kind and subsequently, increased carbon footprint. It is very important that the kind of planning directions we give to our urban areas, the choices we make in terms of urban planning policies in terms of models of living, recreation and transport all part and parcel of an urban planner’s design vocabulary, are rooted in the cause of creating reduction in carbon footprint. For example, when an urban planner needs to choose the design for transportation, the method in which a road cross-section is devised – calculating the area to be allocated for pedestrians, cyclists, private and public vehicles, can have a huge influence in terms of carbon emissions. Similarly, the kind and quantity of green areas in a city such as forests, parks, etc. are instrumental in devising the kind of environment we are able to create.

How can architects and urban planners be brought to the fore, considering the impact their designs have on the carbon footprint?

It is of paramount importance that both architects and urban planners have a greater say in policy making. Coming with a skillset that encompasses subjects such as understanding of construction, environment, cost, design, engineering and planning, the expertise of architects and urban planners can be a huge asset to a government’s initiatives. If our planet has to be saved, people with background in law and economics are not the only ones suited to strategise policies but rather it is time to embrace architects and planners into these roles and provide them with a platform and opportunities that is going to play a critical role in shaping our world, going forward.

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