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Sustainable housing needs to be affordable too

Challenges to sustainability are aggravated by climate change, population growth, urbanisation, and aspirations to better living standards. Urbanisation offers countless opportunities to develop adaption and mitigation strategies to combat climate change through effective environmental governance. Buildings contribute to 30% of the global greenhouse gas emissions and account for the consumption of one-third of the global raw materials, energy and water. It is estimated that in 2021, electricity consumption due to space cooling and heating appliances will grow by 180% (compared to 2011 levels). This calls for immediate action towards sustainable buildings.

For curbing the environmental impact of buildings, electrical demand reduction needs to be supported by electricity generation from green sources. This reduces grid power dependency, especially in remote areas wherein grid supply is scarce and expensive. In this context, innovations like solar tiles, around the Net Zero Energy concept (the total annual energy usage by buildings is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on-site), are becoming popular. Existing rooftops have a large (untapped) potential for solar energy generation and this complements the National Solar Mission's goal of generating 40 GW out of the proposed 100 GW target through solar rooftops.

In India, access to affordable housing is vital for achieving various social objectives, including poverty reduction. In 2012, urban housing shortage stood at 18.8 million units and is expected to grow at 6.6% to 34.1 million units by 2022. In the recent past, various state governments and real estate developers have focused on the sustainability and affordability of the housing sector.

Unfortunately, popular perception associates sustainability with expensive technological advances. The global green building movement that started about two decades back was triggered by the need to curb extravagant resource consumption in modern buildings. However, affordability lies at the core of sustainability. Common sense entails that if something cannot be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished or recycled, it should be restricted or removed from production. Thus, sustainability is not an option but is the only way forward for local low-cost innovations.

Investment in clean and efficient infrastructure can contribute to decarbonisation and rational resource usage. For instance, improved day lighting can reduce energy demand for artificial lighting and hence electricity bills. Double-glazed windows are costly but provide insulation from heat, dust and sound and are cheaper to maintain in the long run. Consumers must create market demands for sustainable housing by objectively considering sustainability as "the right thing to do." Unfortunately, lack of understanding sparks suspicion around proposed solutions being truly green or not.

Linking sustainability with quality rather than pricing can create opportunities for upcoming housing projects, especially since India's socio-economic milieu warrants different perceptions of affordability. The underlying idea is that people should be able to maintain comfortable living standards within affordable sustainable housing.

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