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Tamil Nadu recently became a major State dedicating itself to strong action on climate change. It set up the Tamil Nadu Green Climate Company under Section 8 of the Companies Act, 2013, with an authorised capital of Rs 5 crore, to implement specific missions on agriculture, emissions mitigation, adaptation and wetlands. Chief Minister M.K. Stalin is at the centre of a campaign declaring that Tamil Nadu is going smart on climate. The District Collectors will be the nodal officers spearheading this effort.
With persistent monitoring by the Madras High Court of some aspects of the environment, the new company promises to transform what, for decades, has been a relaxed approach to determinants of climate change – policies on building codes, encroachment and degradation of wetlands, air pollution control, assessing genuine forest cover, and expanding rooftop solar power, all of which involve high public awareness and supportive actions.
The Chief Minister and the top brass of the DMK are apparently convinced about the need to act on climate change, to meet India’s 2030 commitments, but face scepticism among politicians at the lower levels, who are wary of tighter environmental and land regulations, and funding arrangements with international and national agencies who will audit the outcomes.
Tamil Nadu’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions stand at an estimated 1.59 tonnes, compared with the 2019 figure of 1.87 tonnes for the whole of India.
Turning smart on climate would involve a set of actions ranging from the short-term to medium and long-term. Cutting high emissions from coal, the most difficult to reduce, involves cleaning up power plants and scaling-up renewables, while the focus of short-term efforts has to be on the other big contributors.
Cutting high emissions from coal, the most difficult to reduce, involves cleaning up power plants and scaling-up renewables, while the focus of short-term efforts has to be on the other big contributors
The Green Climate Company has already been given key result areas: mapping wetlands, raising forest and tree cover to 33% from about 23%, promote solar and wind power, electric vehicles and sustainable technologies, create a knowledge base of best practice from international and national experience, and, crucially, raise public awareness, support and engagement.
On the ground, the results with environmental regulation has been mixed: the ban on single use plastics has not been fully implemented, building codes prescribing setting up of rooftop solar power by promoters and captive waste management facilities have mostly failed and recovery of wetlands such as Pallikaranai in Chennai has been slow to progress.
There is suspicion about regulation. At an interaction between environmental experts held in April, Ministers, MLAs an some legislators were apparently sceptical that the government’s strenuous approach was necessary. One media report of the event said J Jeyaranjan, vice-chairman of the State Planning Commission, posed tough questions on deploying scarce resources on targets with no predictable outcomes.
But there is active international engagement on climate change adaptation actions with Tamil Nadu. The Asian Development Bank is funding the resettlement of some 1,855 households that have occupied the Right of Way of the Water Resources Department in the Cauvery Delta region rivers. It is a work in progress and may need to be done at many places.
Preparing for extremes
In the future, as weather events become more intense and less predictable, the need to secure rivers and wetlands will be paramount. The resettlement of people who have moved into these catchments, river courses and wetlands is an urgent imperative, including in areas around many cities and towns.
One of the least successful areas of policy is solid and liquid waste management, which nationally contributes about 4% of GHG emissions (2015 data). Since landfills accepting about 3,500 tonnes of waste in Chennai are a reservoir of methane generation sparking big fires, this pumps out a more potent greenhouse gas than even carbon dioxide. Chennai and most other cities and towns have not been able to eliminate organic waste from large landfills, or open burning of waste resorted to by some local bodies illegally.
Streamlining waste management is a high priority for the Green Climate Company, along with a sharp focus on how the power company TANGEDCO, and the urban development agencies are approaching the expansion of rooftop solar.
Green mobility ignored
To cut mobility sector emissions (vehicles, particularly several thousand public transport buses that run throughout the day), the German Development Bank (KfW) is providing financial assistance for the purchase of lower emission and zero emission buses. Raising the quality of travel in public transport, keeping fares down to a minimum, and introducing cross subsidy for some classes such as women, senior citizens and students are urgent imperatives. Tamil Nadu has a better organised bus system – augmented by urban rail and the Metro now – but it has poor quality of travel in the former and high cost in the latter.
Among the government’s priorities is a shift to ‘clean vehicles’ including electrics, and expansion of walking and bicycling infrastructure. Ownership of these tasks, however, is not clearly defined. Local bodies and elected representatives give non-motorised mobility choices very low priority. Chennai is notorious for civic infrastructure that is hostile to pedestrians.
Since landfills accepting about 3,500 tonnes of waste in Chennai are a reservoir of methane generation sparking big fires, this pumps out a more potent greenhouse gas than even carbon dioxide
Another short-term priority for the Green Climate Company would be to identify all lands capable of fresh forest growth, with provision for social audit. Expanding indigenous species of trees suited to particular landscapes and regions (ancient Mullai and Kurinji), with scope for socially productive, fruit-yielding trees would create a beneficial multiplier effect for communities and farmers.
The directions that the Government’s individual missions will take will be watched keenly. The three pillars of climate, the Green Tamil Nadu Mission, TN Climate Change Mission and the TN Wetlands Mission, need to be articulated in the much awaited updated Climate Action Plan.
Can individuals make a difference? The Canada-based botanist and medical scientist Diana Beresford-Kroeger, famous for her work highlighting the intersection of scientific and spiritual dimensions of trees and humanity, has advocated the planting of six trees per individual everywhere in the world as a way of recreating the world’s lost forests. Tamil Nadu has a strong spiritual connection with trees and sacred groves, and it would be a purposeful mix to bring traditional trees back to suitable landscapes, along with technological solutions to cut emissions.
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