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Population | What will happen to Indians who cannot afford air-conditioning?

To make the best use of its human resources, the government must target efforts to keep its citizens healthy and productive. Access to cooling is no longer a luxury in India, as everyone must enjoy thermal comfort to remain healthy and productive

July 29, 2022 / 10:44 AM IST
A growth in population means massive city-level infrastructure projects, including new homes, offices, and commercial spaces. (Image source: Reuters)

A growth in population means massive city-level infrastructure projects, including new homes, offices, and commercial spaces. (Image source: Reuters)

India is expected to surpass China as the world's most populous country in 2023, and due to rapid urbanisation, the UN predicts close to 675 million Indians would live in cities by 2035. This tremendous population growth in cities would mean massive city-level infrastructure projects, including new homes, offices, and commercial spaces, and an increase in power consumption. If things continue as they are today, this will mean a spike in fossil fuel consumption (70 percent of India's energy needs are met by coal), and related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions hastening the climate crisis.

The implications of Climate Change are already evident in several Indian cities as ambient temperatures rise rapidly, leading to a rise in cooling demand from hitherto ‘mild weather’ cities such as Bengaluru. Consequently, electricity demand was at an all-time high this summer. Cooling-related consumption, and emissions will rise further with growing disposable incomes of middle and lower-middle classes, (reminiscent of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s singling out of air conditioning as the reason for the country’s productivity) pushing the ambient temperature to increase further. But what happens to those who cannot afford artificial cooling?

To understand this situation better, let us consider two adjacent rooms. Room One has an air conditioner, and Room Two has no mechanical cooling. During summer, the AC in Room One shifts the heat from there to the adjacent Room Two. As a result, Room Two becomes even hotter than the naturally existing temperature, and its occupants will have to deal with an unbearable situation, which is not their doing.

Now, imagine if there is overcrowding in room two, as is often the case in poorer urban neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, this is the microclimate setting of the urban poor in our cities, where ACs in affluent neighbourhoods make the town a hotter place for them to live in. This situation is exacerbated when we consider rapid urbanisation, massive construction, and shrinking green spaces. This necessitates national and state governments to think systematically to provide sustainable cooling to all.

Read | Population Growth | Can the ghost of Malthus be exorcised?

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In 2019, India became one of the first countries in the world to develop a cooling action plan to address the urgency, and complexity of mainstreaming sustainable cooling practices in multiple sectors. One of the essential short-term recommendations is to develop policies and action plans at the subnational level, as states and cities are yet to identify cooling as a legitimate area of focus.

The state disaster management authorities (SDMAs) must work with relevant institutions to identify communities that are vulnerable to heat stress. They must also work with local governments to develop and implement solutions that guarantee cooling access. For instance, mainstreaming affordable passive design interventions at the city scale could be a good starting point as it enables buildings to remain cool. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) recently launched a cool roof challenge to encourage the SDMAs to explore possibilities of cool roof technologies to reduce heat gains in buildings.

Concurrently, there must be attempts to integrate satellite-based urban planning efforts to map communities vulnerable to growing heat stress and to include provisions that reduce their exposure. The urban local bodies (ULBs) must also consider adopting the Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC) and Eco Niwas Samhita (ENS) as these policies offer opportunities to radically rethink the design of buildings and cities to optimise their cooling loads.

As a general principle, cities could start with adopting measures such as planting trees and vegetation to mitigate the effects of urban heat islands; followed by mainstreaming cooling and energy demand reduction measures at the buildings level; finally, implement technical solutions that could efficiently meet the remaining cooling demand to maximise environmental and socio-economic benefits.

For any nation, an increasing population brings as many challenges as opportunities. To make the best use of its human resources, the government must target efforts to keep its citizens healthy and productive. Access to cooling is no longer a luxury in India, as everyone must enjoy thermal comfort to remain healthy and productive.

If done right, this will directly result in reduced number of lost work hours, improved workforce productivity, avoided healthcare costs, and increased job opportunities to service a new cooling economy. More importantly, mainstreaming sustainable cooling practices will help us reduce electricity consumption and related GHG emissions, which will eventually result in ending the vicious cycle of rising ambient temperature, and increasing electricity consumption.

(This is the second in a series of articles discussing India’s growing population.)

Dhilon Subramanian is Manager, and Deepak Tewari is Research Fellow, at the WRI India's Energy programme. Twitter: @DhilonSubraman1, @dipak876. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.
Dhilon Subramanian is associated with the energy programme at WRI India. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.
Deepak Tewari is Research Fellow, at the WRI India's Energy programme. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.
first published: Jul 29, 2022 10:44 am
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