Sunday, August 24, 2014

Cutting Emissions in India: A Look at the Construction Sector

From the first week of August until the last week of September, I was given the opportunity to work as an intern for the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington DC-based think tank, on a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction program in Mumbai, India. WRI is an organization whose mission is "to move human society to live in ways that protect Earth’s environment and its capacity to provide for the needs and aspirations of current and future generations". WRI has six main focus points: climate, energy, food, forests, water, and cities and transport. It works through various programs and initiatives in the areas of business, finance and governance.

One such initiative, aimed at the business side of things in the climate and energy areas, is the India GHG Program, a voluntary framework for businesses to measure and manage their greenhouse gas emissions. The reader may ask: why would businesses, keen on maximizing their profits, want to put up with the cost of measuring, not to mention managing or reducing, their GHG emissions? The idea is simple: it is often in the businesses' interest. As notes Greg FitzGerald of Carbon Analytics, an Oxford-based technology venture, cutting emissions often leads to cost reduction, efficiency improvements, risk reduction (particularly in jurisdictions where legal GHG-reduction targets are expected), and brand and reputation improvement as a business that cares about more than just short-term profit.

In India, a developing country whose GDP has grown 7.5% per year on average in the last decade, a large source of GHG emissions is the construction sector. From now until 2025, 11.5 million homes are expected to be built in India every year, excluding office buildings, infrastructure and other construction. These buildings will emit greenhouse gases in three phases: during their construction, use and disposal. While many buildings today are built so as to minimize their in-use emissions by reducing their energy consumption, not so many are built with the idea of minimizing the GHGs emitted during their construction. That is despite the fact that embedded emissions comprise between 32 and 60% of a building's total GHG emissions over a 20 year cycle, mainly from the production of cement, steel, glass, bricks and timber.

Mumbai's all new sea bridge in the front and Mumbai's all new skyline in the back. Zoom into the picture and see the cranes everywhere. The Indian construction boom is certainly real in Mumbai. Source: Author.
However, the construction boom is happening not just in cities. For example, see this set of apartment complexes being built near Asangaon, a village about 70km north-east of Mumbai. I wonder who will live in them: certainly not the villagers, who would not be able to afford it. Maybe we have a new bubble in the making? Source: Author.

As a result, millions and millions of tons of GHGs will be emitted every year as part of India's construction boom. Assuming that there are inefficiencies in the construction process, countless tons of GHG emissions can be prevented. My job is to identify these inefficiencies and work to minimize them with some of India's largest construction companies. 

This work will involve three broad steps. First, we need to find out who are the suppliers of key materials (cement, steel, glass, bricks and timber) to our construction company. Second, by working together with these suppliers, we need to gather precise data on their emissions using the GHG accounting tools developed by WRI and adjusted for Indian circumstances. Finally, we will develop a tool to analyze the data in order to identify inefficiencies and offer suggestions for improvement.

Of course if we are to reverse, stop or significantly slow down global warming while maintaining or improving our standard of living, reducing emissions from construction is only a drop in the sea. Reducing our dependency on coal, stopping deforestation, reversing desertification, implementing smart incentives, improving technology and other initiatives will be required as well. In other words, we will have to focus on the biggest opportunities for GHG emissions reduction--and the Indian construction sector is certainly one of them.

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