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Green Infrastructure: For the people, planet, and prosperity of the economy

With a GDP of $3.5 trillion, India has recently surpassed the United Kingdom as the world’s fifth largest economy. It is also expected to become a $5 trillion economy within the next decade. Being a large economy entails additional responsibilities for environmental protection. To demonstrate its commitment, India has made five commitments at the COP-26 summit in Glasgow, namely: that India would increase its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 GW by 2030, meet 50% of its energy requirements from “renewable energy” by 2030, reduce the total projected carbon emissions by one billion tonnes from now until 2030, reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by more than 45% and by the year 2070, achieve the target of a “Net Zero” economy. The Indian construction industry would necessarily need to play an outsized role in achieving this target.

The Indian construction industry and its key raw materials contribute 8-10% of India’s GDP. Being a notable contributor to the nation’s GDP, the construction industry is also the second largest employer after agriculture. As India steps up its investment programme to improve the quality of life for its citizens by improving urban infrastructure, building houses, developing highways, and seeking to expand employment opportunities by building world-class industrial infrastructure and factories, we will continue to witness intense construction activity in years to come.

Globally, the term “construction” gets instantaneously associated with the colour “grey.” It is largely due to the alarming quantity of debris generated. According to the Building Material Promotion Council, India generates an estimated 150 million tonnes of construction and demolition waste every year. The construction industry is also a major contributor to carbon emissions. According to a report, the construction ecosystem accounts for about 25% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Of this concrete, is the largest contributor, accounting for 4.5% of global GHG emissions and 7.0% of CO2 emissions in 2019.

For India to fulfil its COP-26 commitments as well as ensure the economic wellbeing of its citizens, concerted efforts would need to be taken by the government and industry. The industry is already aware of the challenge and is taking various steps including joining global initiatives and initiating dialogue with the government and other key stakeholders. As 70% of infrastructure spending in India is done by the central and state governments, they would play a key role in the process by encouraging research, giving preference to green construction material, and redefining specifications and standards.

The path towards COP-26 goals would also involve massive investment as companies pivot their business towards green energy and materials. There are already several initiatives and pilot projects by the steel industry to reduce carbon emissions in the steel-making process, including using green hydrogen in blast furnaces, carbon capture and storage, etc. Similarly, while the Indian cement industry is already a global leader in terms of energy efficiency, it is also taking steps to reduce energy consumption. Indian energy companies are also initiating various projects to produce green hydrogen and ammonia.

Infrastructure decarbonization strategies can be broadly classified as Redesign, Reduction, and Reuse.

Redesign would involve optimising the infrastructure design and construction methods to improve the energy efficiency of the construction process and reduce the carbon footprint. This would involve redesigning buildings and infrastructure to optimise material consumption, improve building lifecycle energy efficiency, change material mix, use alternate building materials, and research into new building materials like biocement, etc.

Reduce would involve reduction in material consumption and reducing wastage. This could be done by adopting 3D engineering tools like Building Information Modelling (BIM), increasing precast and prefabrication, and 3D printing.

Reuse would involve recycling building material and other resources used during construction. This could mean recycling construction waste, capturing and reusing carbon for curing cement or making hydrogen, a circular system for managing water, etc.

Various companies in the construction sector are already taking steps in this direction, by re-examining their strategy, processes, and practices. Global investors are also helping to make things easier by making investment decisions based on the environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) ratings of companies.

The Global GDP is now around $ 94 trillion and the current resource consumption trajectory is unsustainable. To save our planet, we need to shift gears: from a linear “take-make-waste” economy to a circular “redesign-reduce-reuse.” With rising population and urbanization, we are building the equivalent of New York City every month. Given this gargantuan demand, circular construction is the only way we can build a world that works for people and the planet.

This article is written by Himanshu Chaturvedi, Chief Strategy Officer at Tata Projects Ltd. First appeared at ET-Insights.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Urban Infra Group, its management, or its members.