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Coming of age: How India’s green building community confronts climate change

Coming of age: How India’s green building community confronts climate change
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By Mahesh Ramanujam  Feb 6, 2020 11:14:51 AM IST (Updated)

By building green, we can significantly reduce the impact our buildings have on contributing to climate change while also building resilience into our homes and communities. 

Mangalam Balasubramanian believes that in India, we are immersing ourselves in trash.

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She has a point.
As the founder and managing trustee of Exnora Green Pammal, a women-founded and -operated waste management organisation for the Pammal neighbourhood of Chennai, India, Mangalam has committed her life to training and educating people, and particularly women, in sustainable practices for better living.
Recently we interviewed Mangalam in advance for our annual Greenbuild India conference in early February. She is a humble woman with a deep desire to improve the living standard of the people in India and around the world, and I feel a profound connection to her story. Being from Chennai, her work gives me hope for the future of my hometown. I know the streets she has transformed. I know the minds she has moulded and the lives she has changed — and because my family still lives there, I have a personal stake in her continuing this work. Managalam also reminds me of my own mother, who taught me, during an impoverished childhood, that sustainability is synonymous with survival.
But in addition to being a feminist, teacher, and advocate, Mangalam is, in my opinion, the specific type of historian we need in today’s India. Why? Because she’s giving context to climate change and she’s proving that green builders come in many forms.
To understand the future India is capable of building, we must first consider our past. Mangalam has a deep understanding of this nation’s history, as well as the patterns of human behaviour. She points to The Stone Age of India, the Iron Age, and the Golden Age of the Gupta Dynasty as eras of progress within the building, materials, and economic sectors of this country. But when she speaks of today, she describes an era of stark contrast — one with excessive consumption and layers of garbage blanketing our neighborhoods.
In many ways, this is — quite literally — the Garb-Age. Today, 70 percent of India’s plastic isn’t recycled and makes up the towering landfills of trash, including New Delhi’s Ghazipur dump, which is approaching the height of the Taj Mahal. And we certainly can’t rely on regional pollution boards for transparency around plastic when we know that less than half of them often report the waste.
But we also know that the green building community in India is capable of combating the depletion of the country’s resources and the impacts of climate change with more precision and efficiency than nearly anywhere on Earth. Buildings account for more than one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), according to the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction. Add in other infrastructure and activities, such as transportation, that are associated with buildings, and that number jumps.
By building green, we can significantly reduce the impact our buildings have on contributing to climate change while also building resilience into our homes and communities. According to a 2018 ANAROCK report, India ranks second only to the US in green technology projects and built-up area. While the India Green Building Council is less than two decades old, the report indicates that the Indian green building market is already expected to double, with upwards of 10 billion square feet by 2022.
Buildings have life cycles
Much like human beings, buildings themselves have life cycles. They go through construction, maintenance, and deconstruction. During these cycles, the sector emits 40 percent of global waste and more than a third of greenhouse gases.
But I believe that India can significantly reduce these numbers because we have already doubled our green building footprint and rank third in 2018’s top 10 regions and countries outside the US for LEED, and have more than 2,300 total registered LEED projects across the nation. Additionally, with Arc, the digital performance monitoring platform for LEED and other certifications, we have tracked to date, 12,053 metric tons of waste diverted from Indian landfills.
But India is also uniquely suited to fight climate change because, in addition to companies and local governments doubling down on their environmental commitments and certifications, our developing country is filled with individuals like Mangalam — unconventional types of green builders who understand that beyond the construction, maintenance, and deconstruction, a fourth building cycle exists, one that is enduring and inherent in everything we do: The human experience.
The Indian green building community has been and always will be one that champions both the power of individual and collective change — and more importantly one that fosters a culture where these distinct evolutions can and should overlap. We have people who are teachers. We have chefs. We have designers. We have CEOs and sustainability officers. And at this year’s Greenbuild India conference, we will envision a future with young and old alike, one with people who have different skills and career aspirations, but who share a common passion for building — building community, building relationships, building houses and workspaces, building and rebuilding lives, and most importantly building a lasting ideological and behavioural shift in how we approach the next decade and beyond.
Stewards for sustainability
We remember proudly the Stone, Iron, and Golden ages for their contributions, for their innovations and additions to our quality of life. So what if — instead of giving into this age of consumption, this Garb-Age — what if every one of us examines our personal strengths? Our varying backgrounds and interests? What if, in doing so, we are able to find unique and inspiring ways to become stewards for sustainability? And in doing so, we are better prepared to carry on that tradition of action, of accountability, and of our deeply ingrained desire to improve living standards for one another?
If we think like that — if we act with intent and compassion and we build on our personal strengths for the betterment of others — the future we want is within reach. Because if you look closely, the history of building in India is the history of life and longevity in India. The world can learn a lot from us, and if we define this new age by the wide-ranging and inclusive tenets of green building — and with that precious fourth cycle of the human experience — then we will be remembered far less for what we consumed and far more for what we created.
Mahesh Ramanujam is President and CEO, US Green Building Council and Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI).
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