Change must be championed

Did the Nobel Prize committee make a mistake when it gave the 2007 Peace Prize to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former us vice president Al Gore? I wonder. My disquiet is not because the prize recognized and put climate change at the centre of global debate. It stems from the fact that the Nobel Prize has held up, as champions, an organisation and individuals that are cautious, conservative and play strictly by the book when searching for answers to tackling climate change. There is nothing wrong in being so. Except that this is a time the world needs to re-invent what it means by growth and development. It needs hard answers for a crisis already hitting large parts of the poorest world, but created because of economic wealth and power.

Today, everyone is saying, indeed screaming, that we can ‘deal’ with climate change if we adopt measures such as energy efficiency and some new technologies. The message is simple: managing climate change will not hurt lifestyles or economic growth; a win-win situation where we will benefit from green technologies and new business. I do not mock this approach or undermine its proponents. But I do want to caution it is not so simple: the transition to a low-carbon economy is not just about technology but about re-distributing economic and ecological space. This change will hurt, as indeed climate change itself—variable weather events, destroying crops, are already hurting the most vulnerable and powerless.

I believe change will be difficult. It will require us to stand behind the tough measures society has to take. Let me share an experience from my own city: the introduction of a bus rapid transit system, brt, on a 15 km road in the heart of New Delhi, and the uproar around it.

Everybody agrees public transport is important. It is a policy prescription everybody believes will happen, as all good things do, without discord or disruption. Good idea, very win-win. But nobody says why, if it is so easy, cities of the rich world have never made the transition to mass rapid transport—bus, light or metro rail—and restricted the growth of private gas-guzzling cars. In fact, all evidence shows transport- and personal vehicle-related greenhouse gas emissions are galloping in the rich ‘developed’ world.

Enter Delhi, where we are learning public transport is a homily which should not come home. The city government, after much deliberation, decided last year to build the first brt corridor. This system creates a central lane for buses to drive without obstruction, segregating the remaining road space between cars (two or three lanes), bicycles and pedestrians.

Last week, the first stretch opened. It runs from Delhi’s poorest areas to its poshest. It opened badly—traffic signals failed and there were long lines in the car and bike lanes. But these snags do not explain the intensity of emotions against brt, as a concept. brt has been plagued with bad media coverage. And educated people will tell you the idea is a mad one—how can buses run in the middle of the road, taking space away from cars? brt reduces car space, and this is just not acceptable.

The fact is space has not been reduced; for once, it has been equitably allocated to the users of the road. In this stretch in my rich city (Delhi has the highest per capita income in the country), buses transport over 60 per cent of the commuters; cars and two-wheelers roughly 20 per cent. It is also clear that cars are growing so exponentially the city is running out of road space even as it builds new roads and new flyovers. The city already has over 21 per cent of its land area under roads and even as road length increased by over 20 per cent between 1996 and 2006, the number of cars increased by 132 per cent. It is no surprise the city is fighting congestion and air pollution.

It is important to recognise that in Delhi, unlike many other cities where the system has been introduced, cars have already taken over road space. This scarce space has to be re-allocated, and this creates tension. There is no easy answer. My city is building a metro but knows it is too expensive to expand across its sprawl. Therefore, buses, cheaper and faster to introduce, are the most cost-effective and efficient answer to mobility. But buses must take part of that very road space that is already taken.

The fight is really on. Even as I write this, the chief minister, beleaguered by her colleagues, media opinion and opposition has shown political courage and decided not to scrap the project. What is strange, very strange, is that the proponents of public transport (as a good idea) have not stood up to fight for this idea as it is being implemented. Clearly, that would be rocking the boat and pushing too hard to make the change.

The world has similar intentions. It will find small answers (or no answers) to big problems. Biofuels—growing fuel, not food, on land to run the cars of the rich—is one such techno-fix. There has been no discussion on whether biofuels, already competing for land with food crops and raising prices, will indeed reduce emissions when vehicle numbers are increasing. With biofuels under criticism for raising food prices and depleting water resources, the next generation technical solution is on the cards—hybrid cars. I am not against either biofuels or hybrid cars. But I know these are small parts of the big change we need.

We desperately need new champions who can push new approaches. Let us hope next time the Nobel Prize Committee will show not just wisdom, but also courage.

—Sunita Narain