“When people do small actions together it can make a huge difference and improve quality of life,” said Justine Veit, Consular Officer at the US Consulate General, Mumbai. Veit was the main speaker at an event organised by the US Consulate in conjunction with the Bombay Natural History Society at the latter’s Colaba office at Hornbill House on Monday evening.
The event was a part of the Consulate’s Mumbai Mondays series. Surrounded by sample antlers of different types of deer hanging from the walls, Veit spoke enthusiastically on Collective Action in Megacity Environment and detailed the initiatives which residents of three megacities - Tokyo, Mexico City and New York City - took to make their environment greener, and how Mumbai can do it too.
Veit defined a megacity as one that has 15 million plus people. “When there are lots of people in a small space, it creates a heat island effect. This leads to over usage of climate control devices such as airconditioners. Other problems include an inability to control rainwater runoff, trash and overcrowding,” she said.
Tokyo, she said, has a population of more than 25 million people and hence, suffers from the heat island effect. “Plants and other organic structures absorb the heat from the sun. They help to keep evenings cool. But inorganic structures such as buildings absorb the heat and release it in the evening. That’s why evenings are not cool anymore. We then use more airconditioning, which worsens the situation,” she said.
To mitigate this heat island effect, the residents of Tokyo adopted the green roof concept. Said Veit, “When one grows grass on the roof of buildings, the soil and the grass create an insulating effect, thereby turning a concrete inorganic heat absorbing structure into an organic heat releasing structure. This leads to lesser use of airconditioning. When 6 per cent of the buildings in the city adopted the green roof concept, it was found that the entire city’s temperature l owered by 2 degrees Celsius.”
The green roof also helped to reduce flooding. “It gives water a place to go, thereby reducing runoffs into sewers,” said Veit. The concept has its downside too. Veit admitted, “It is expensive and labour intensive.” But the Japanese found a way to make it work to their advantage. Said Veit, “Businesses cultivated crops on their roofs instead of growing grass, and gave jobs to displaced farm workers. The green roof brought in profits, lowered the indoor temperature and thus reduced airconditioning costs, and at the same time, helped the environment as it was a local food source.”
Businesses also launched the Cool Biz campaign, which urged offices to increase the temperature settings of their airconditioners to 28 degree Celsius and allow the employees to wear breathable, less formal clothes - such as cotton shirts - as opposed to suits and ties. “The city government adopted the programme in its buildings in the city.
In 2005, the first year of the project, they saved 460,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) and in the second year, they saved14 million tonnes. South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United Nations have also launched their own Cool Biz initiatives. This campaign was not the government telling the people what to do, it was the people showing the government how it can be done,” said Veit, raising a toast to people power.
Veit gave the example of Mexico City, to show how change is possible even if the majority of the citizens are not well to do like the Japanese. Said Veit, “Mexico City has 23 million people in half the space of Tokyo. It was literally swimming in trash. The mayor closed down the dump and opened a recycling centre. Then they realised that the recycler does not have the necessary features to sort the trash. Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) came together to educate the people on sorting the trash into organic, recyclable and regular trash.
The government started a trash-for-food campaign where they offered food vouchers in exchange for sorted trash. As a result, people started looking at trash differently. They stopped littering and in six months, they recycled 140 tonnes of garbage in exchange for 60 tonnes of produce. In two years, Mexico City went from being one of the most polluted cities in the world to becoming one of the cleanest cities.”
From trash, Veit moved to traffic in New York City. Traffic jams and gridlocks were a daily issue as the city did not have enough space to expand roads, while the number of cars on the road continued to rise. That’s when a few entrepreneurs came up with the idea of car sharing - a step ahead of car pooling. In this scheme, a company with a fleet of cars would have designated parking spots all over the city. For a fixed membership fee, a person could hire a car for a predetermined amount of time.
He or she could pick it up from one of the parking spots and at the end of their ride, park it back. “If you want a car to drive to work, you could do so, and while you are at work, the car would be used by other customers of the company. That way, it doesn’t stay idle for those eight hours you are at work. You can then hire the car again to drive back home. Car fumes contribute to heat island effect,” said Veit.
“Each shared car took 20 cars off the road. Fewer cars meant lesser fumes. This also enabled people to have the correct car for the right occasion - for example, a two-seater for a date and an eight-seater for a family outing. Users also found that it helped them to save USD 500 per month compared to having their own car. The fuel saved in a year was enough to power 15 million houses for a month.”
At the Q&A session after her talk, Veit said that many eco-friendly initiatives have been started in Mumbai too. “In Dharavi, a small group recycles about 7,000 tonnes of trash every day. NGOs have awareness campaigns, there are websites on composting and car pooling. We just need community management and a little more publicity. In a city of 23 million people, even if one million people do something, it can bring about major change.
” When asked which of the different ideas she had outlined is most suitable for Mumbai, Veit said, “The simplest one would be trash sorting as everyone can do it on their own. However, there is no reason why someone can’t start car sharing or build a green roof. All are more or less applicable to Mumbai, but recycling is the easiest.”
Veit also pointed out that profits play a big role in the sustainability of these campaigns. “In these cities, businesses and the government found a way to make these eco-friendly measures profitable. If it makes money, people will adopt these measures. These cities are great models on how to make eco-friendly measures profitable.” She also said that while collective action can bring change, “when you get the government involved in a positive way, it can take it to the next level.”
One disgruntled audience member pointed out that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had started a trash segregation programme a while back but it hasn’t made much progress. He also stated that the fight for the environment gets a setback when people find that running businesses that contribute to the heat island effect - such as parking lots - are more profitable than employing eco-friendly measures.
To which Veit suggested, “You may not be able to change those who are making money while increasing the heat island effect, but you can focus on other areas, change those practices and then tackle these people.” Veit, who arrived in the city six months ago after a stint in Mexico, summed up the gist of her talk with the message, “You have a wonderful city, but it is up to you to take care of it.”
BMC’s trash plan
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) started a garbage segregation campaign in 2001. It made it compulsory for all Mumbaikars to sort trash into dry and wet garbage before handing them over to the BMC trash workers. The corporation also started awareness campaigns to urge people to use the wet waste as vermicompost in the public places of housing societies, while the dry waste would be sold to scrap dealers. However, the city is yet to actively take part in sorting garbage with many housing societies refusing to cooperate with the BMC’s instructions. Hence from next month onwards, the BMC will strictly enforce 100 per cent segregation and will fine erring housing societies.
Justine Veit suggests a few eco-friendly measures
Turn off lights once you leave the room
Turn off the tap when brushing teeth
Take more showers, less baths
Fix toilet leaks
Use appropriate amount of water when using the washing machine
Use cold water when washing clothes to save energy
Reuse rainwater to clean floors or water plants