Clearing the air about Bengaluru’s carbon emissions

A lot of heated debates at the recently concluded Copenhagen Climate Meet 2009 threw up more questions than answers. Though many argued over India’s position in the debate, little is known of how its rapidly growing cities are contributing to global warming. Speaking locally, how much does Bangalore, teeming with a six-million-plus, contribute to India’s total carbon emissions? How does it hold itself accountable to the mess our planet is in and how does it plan to help clean it up?

The answer is systematic assessment of its emissions. As with much of the climate change topic, here it becomes crucial to negotiate our way through some technical jargon.

Talk of carbon levels (particularly in the media) are usually followed by the phrase ‘carbon footprint’, while a more accurate term would be ‘greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory’ or ‘carbon inventory’. Professor N H Ravindranath, an IPCC member from the Centre for Sustainable Technologies at the Indian Institute of Sciences, says, “Carbon footprint is a loose, generic term often used (by the media) to explain the amount of carbon emissions; whereas a GHG inventory is a binding legal term with specific parameters.”

Green house gases are those that contribute to global warming including Carbon dioxide and Methane. Their emissions caused by burning fuels, whether for cooking, for transportation or generation of electricity.

Simply put, a carbon inventory is a measure of all GHGs that a particular activity produces. “When we talk about carbon levels, a common mistake is to confuse it with pollution. But GHGs do not include polluting gases like carbon monoxide, which though harmful, do not contribute to warming,” he adds. But a carbon inventory takes into account only GHGs like carbon dioxide and methane which trap and radiate the sun’s rays (the greenhouse effect), thus increasing the earth’s average temperatures.

Calculating emissions

Most carbon inventories for cities calculate emission levels from land use activities particularly transport and housing. For instance, an inventory conducted for New York City by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) based its findings on the calculation of fuel emissions from vehicles and the energy used by buildings.

“While these factors are useful, they are not all-inclusive,” says Sapna N, Project Coordinator for City Managers’ Association, Karnataka (CMAK), a state-level advisory body that provides technical expertise to various urban local bodies (municipalities) in cities and towns across Karnataka.

She says a comprehensive inventory of the city’s emissions must “trace sources of all activities that lead to GHG emissions”. She adds, “For example, if we take power supply in Bangalore, the sources are thermal and hydroelectric. Thermal power supply must then consider emissions from transportation and burning of coal, transportation of residues like charcoal, etc.”

Prof. Ravindranath says that to produce any useful data for Indian cities carbon inventories must define the boundaries for that region. “In Karnataka, electricity comes mainly from hydropower but in Bihar, it may be 100% coal,” he explains.

Emissions linked to lifestyle

Dr Sharadchandra Lele, senior researcher at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment, agrees that in cities like Bangalore, “studies must take into account socio-economic differences while measuring emission levels”.

Different lifestyles influence emission levels. “A low-income family may emit more carbon while cooking by using firewood as against households using LPG,” says Lele, but is quick to add “middle- and high-income groups contribute far more by travelling in private vehicles while the poor may use public transport,” Lele says.

This throws up various difficulties in collecting data on Bangalore’s emission levels.

Every family contributes

Difficult, yet possible. A simple way of collecting data is to ensure that inventories look into consumption (and therefore emission) patterns of households with emphasis on socio-economic status, industries and local governing bodies (emissions produced while delivering essential services).

For instance, basic data might come from an individual level (a whole family unit). How much carbon (or GHG) does a typical household in Bangalore emit on an average? This involves mapping its consumption patterns of electricity, water consumption (from borewells or Cauvery river pipeline), transportation patterns (number of vehicles owned, yearly petrol consumption etc) and nature of the building or house.

Sustainable architecture helps

City-based architect Chitra Vishwanath, who specialises in sustainable architecture, believes that the type of house can tell a great deal about the family’s consumption patterns. “A sustainable building is one that is not parasitic; it relies on its own resources by using mud from the building site, harvesting rainwater and its design lets in maximum sunlight,” she says.

Such architecture cuts energy consumption at various levels. Rainwater harvesting reduces emissions from borewells or pipelines; an airy and well-lit house does away with ACs and excess artificial lighting. Similarly, if mud is used from the site itself, it eliminates the need to transport materials.

Quite the contrary, with conventional buildings, emissions from transporting materials like sand in trucks and the energy used to fire bricks (mostly wood) must be calculated. It’s a double whammy: this method emits GHGs (like methane from wood burning) and also eats away forests that absorb carbon dioxide.

Consumption patterns will also include tracking the source of food items like vegetables – locally grown vegetables means lesser emissions than exotic ones from supermarkets due to transportation.

No detailed inventory

Bangalore’s carbon inventory is not complete until its industries and municipal bodies are also brought into the picture.

Manvel Alur, founder of Environmental Synergies in Development (ENSYDE), says the need of the hour is “a local inventory, sector-specific and industry-specific.”

“Most carbon calculators currently available are very generic to the West and western lifestyles,” she adds.

While most corporations have taken some steps to reduce emissions through what Alur calls ‘process improvements and/or conservation’, there are no detailed inventories of the city’s industries. One of the reasons may be the lack of India-specific calculators. “Most carbon calculators currently available are very generic to the West and western lifestyles,” says Manvel, “We are developing India-specific calculators that should be ready sometime later this year,” she adds.

Another possible reason, particularly with IT companies, is with carbon disclosure. Although most industries are trying to cut emissions, the level of carbon emitted by them remains undisclosed. The quantity of GHGs emitted by a particular industry could be the basis for development of benchmarks for that sector. “There is reluctance to reveal their carbon emissions, as there is concern about what will happen to that data,” Manvel adds.

Urban bodies’ contribution

Another sector that must wake up to the alarm bells is Bangalore’s local municipal bodies like BBMP and BWSSB. They need to become more energy-efficient and reduce their ecological footprints. But first, they need to be aware of their own energy consumption patterns.

This is where departments governing the municipal admisnitration across the state come in. The Urban Development Department (UDD) along with the Directorate of Municipal Administration (DMA) have appointed CMAK, a state nodal agency to coordinate the baseline studies for energy audits for 213 Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) across Karnataka. Brinda Gowrav, a researcher at CMAK, says, “Before we think of making ULBs more energy-efficient, we need to know their exact energy consumption.”

CMAK’s studies focus on three areas – street lighting, water supply and municipal buildings. Project Coordinator Sapna elaborates, “These are the three main services provided by ULBs in Karnataka. For example ULBs need to study the energy consumption patterns under water supply to know current scenario based on which an action plan could be devised to make it efficient.”

The objective of the energy audits is not just to identify how much energy is used in essential services but also how efficient the system is. So, apart from tracing sources of electricity for street lighting, the audit could help identify transmission and distribution losses, theft, and identify ways to cut such losses. It will also assess hospitals, offices, and schools for the same purpose, Brinda adds.

Tedious, but a worthwhile task

Quantifying Bangalore’s carbon emissions is a mammoth task. Mere collection of data can pose a huge challenge. However, Prof. Ravindranath believes it would be worthwhile. “If an inventory of all sectors is done, then the government can actually identify carbon-intensive areas and develop mitigation measures. Soon, we will have carbon regulation (like carbon tax). Then, this data could become valuable,” he says.

But what does all this mean to the janata? “If we give the average citizen a complete picture of the consumption patterns of their local governments, it will help increase accountability,” says Sapna. “But more importantly, it will raise civic consciousness. It is important for residents to understand how much energy goes into their water supply so that the next time they see a leaking tap, they will make an effort to fix it.”

“It is important for residents to understand how much energy goes into their water supply so that the next time they see a leaking tap, they will make an effort to fix it,” Sapna concludes.  ⊕

About Bhanu Sridharan 12 Articles
Bhanu Sridharan is a Bangalore-based journalist and aspiring filmmaker.


  1. Bengaluru needs to start action as a city if it aims to be a city of reckoning and global standards 30 years down the line. It has to offer a high standard of living, attract growth but in a way that embellishes its responsible healthy living.

  2. I am not sure if we need carbon measurements to start some action – if the urban government bodies can enforce the building rules(rainwater harvesting, sewage treatment etc.) and protect the environment(lakes, fields) by not encroaching upon them for urban development, that itself will ensure a significant cut in carbon emissions.

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