Last week, Vivek Gilani was chatting away with an Uber driver in Chennai and mentioned that he worked as a sustainability professional working on reducing India’s carbon footprint. Babu, the driver, having posed questions on curbing automobile emissions, then declared that he would like to work with Gilani; he claimed he had an engineering degree. A little flustered at this sudden turn of conversation, the 39-year-old engineer quickly quizzed Babu: What is Newton’s second law of motion? Can you draw a pressure-enthalpy diagram? Babu ended with a near-perfect score, and Gilani immediately signed him up for a workshop offered by Fair Conditioning, a Pune-based initiative to build a generation of engineers and architects who think green.
Gilani runs CBalance Solutions Hub, a consultancy that helps firms mitigate the ecological footprint in Mumbai and Pune. He has partnered with Geneva-based non-profit Noé21 to set up Fair Conditioning, which seeks to make curricula in architecture and engineering colleges more alert to energy efficiency. The programme seeks to nurture architects, mechanical engineers and corporates who are passionate about energy-efficiency, and most importantly, whose practice will integrate sustainable cooling principles early in their building-design process.
In the somewhat-crowded space that is advocacy and the climate change debate, Fair Conditioning wants to make one intervention: reduce cooling demand from Indian buildings. The wider implication, they hope, will be that the next generation of engineers and architects will see climate change and climate justice in India as inextricably linked to cooling needs.
“The contribution of the anticipated cooling demand from India’s current and future building to its energy security issues is substantial. The power required to run ACs installed in Indian commercial and residential buildings is expected to require construction of 1010 standard sized power plants (245 MW each) by 2030. That’s why India is an apt region for leapfrogging from outdated blueprints for cooling built-up spaces towards an era of sustainable cooling technologies,” says Gilani, who received the Ashoka fellowship in 2014 for his work on climate change mitigation, and on transparency and accountability in electoral politics.
According to data compiled by the USAID ECO-III project (a bilateral India-US programme), India is yet to construct 70 per cent of all buildings that will stand in the country in 2030, often cited as a benchmark year by groups doing environmental projections. “As construction of these gets underway, room air-conditioner units will balloon from 32 million in 2015 to 225 million ACs in 2035; and commercial ACs from 9 million tonnes in 2015 to 104 million tonnes in 2035,” says Gilani.
Philippe de Rougemont, who runs Noé21 and is programme director at Fair Conditioning, says that while big corporates should lead by example, the stakeholders in their target group are engineering students, architecture professors and practising architects.
“The day big corporates and real estate majors will embark on putting energy efficient buildings on the market as a standard, they will need a skilled workforce. People graduating with architecture and engineering diplomas today are not able to design such buildings. This is definitely the first step to take,” says Rougemont, a long-time climate change activist over email.
India has a reasonably small carbon footprint to begin with (the average is 1.7 tonnes, while the world average is about 3.9 tonnes), but Rougemont points out that the global climate system is blind to per capita metrics — it reacts only to the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere. “According to Indian scholars, affluent sectors of India are ‘hiding (their emissions) behind the poor’. Our first choice was China but the education system there seemed too centralised, too closed. Mostly, our experience in Geneva made us feel how urgent it is to embark on green buildings as a standard, instead of having the illusion that one day in the future these buildings will be retrofitted,” he says.
Since 2014, Fair Conditioning’s core team has organised about 24 workshops in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Bangalore, and Jaipur with the objective to train 60 architecture professors in 10 colleges, 80 mechanical engineering students to design sustainable cooling systems and 48 architects to incorporate the new measures.
“Of the 2,888 architecture students graduating each year from India’s top 55 architecture colleges, less than 25 per cent have access to courses that embed energy efficiency or sustainable design knowledge into critical thinking and design skill set. Of these 25 per cent colleges, only three-four courses of the 72 courses over a bachelor’s degree course require the student to think of the environmental impact of their designs,” says Gilani.
The next stage for Fair Conditioning will be to dovetail their field practice and learning over the next three years into policy interventions to coax behaviour change among occupants of air-conditioned indoor spaces.
The way they see it, Babu, who is now brushing up his basics, will return to engineering with a newfound belief in his own role in the larger scheme of things. And slowly, a green army will rise.