Home Story The Highway To A Green Economics

The Highway To A Green Economics

Green Highways are not just about planting trees but a concept of enhancing environmental sustainability of highway investments and operations by enhancing the climate change mitigation (GHG emissions) and adaptation during construction, maintenance and operation of highways and road traffic. It has to include better focus on the engineering aspects right from design, to material usage, waste reduction, and recycling and reuse.
| Nov 02, 2016

Taking a leaf from the best of Indian and global practices that have led to the creation of many a majestic tree lined avenues linking numerous cities, towns and villages down the ages, the Ministry of Road transport and Highways (MoRTH) has embarked on a mega National Green Highways Mission (NGHM), under National Highways Authority of India that seeks to not just create scenic beauty as seen in Srinagar but also serve multiple purposes. To name just a few – protect biodiversity, raise agro-forests to meet industry needs, create a carbon sink while providing employment and generating resources at the local level.

With 14.1% of all green house gas (GHG) emissions globally coming from the transportation sector, there is growing realization of the need to address issues leading to this state, given its direct impact on environment, health and climate. According to a 2010 government study, the transport sector in India is estimated to emit 142.04 million tons of CO2 equivalent, 73.1% of which is from the road transport alone. In view of this, the Ministry of Road transport and Highways (MoRTH) came up with the National Green Highways policy in 201 with the vision “to develop eco-friendly national highways with the participation of the community, farmers, NGOs, private sector, institutions, government agencies and the forest department for economic growth and development in a sustainable manner.”

NGHM in some ways takes off from one of the edicts of Emperor Ashoka (of the Mauryan Empire) that the highways should be lined with fruit and shade trees so that travelers can benefit from them. Instead of the government doing it alone, a participatory approach has been adopted for the development of green corridors along one lakh km long network of highways, which will help in creating an additional carbon sink as committed in India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to stem climate change and create one lakh sustained employment in next ten years. Currently around 40 per cent of the traffic in India operates on the National Highways, which account for just 2 per cent of the Indian road network.

Through remedial steps, the government is targeting nearly 2.13 to 2.46 million tonnes of carbon sequestration through greening of 100,089 kms of the national highways which besides reducing the pollution levels will help the country to earn carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the UNFCCC.

Work of planting trees along both sides of the national highways has begun in over a thousand kilometres in various parts of the country. Not just the government agencies but many private sector companies and entities have also been roped in through a bidding process to undertake the work of planting and nurturing the trees. So far, mostly the state government nurseries have been selected to provide healthy and diverse plant materials along with the requisite training to ensure maximum survival and growth of the plants. Apart from the companies and individuals, local community participation is being sought for better care and employment generation.

ITC Ltd is among scores of private companies and NGOs seeking to participate under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) initiative which offers opportunity to raise plantations with agro forestry component along the National Highways. Suneel Pandey, ITC Vice President, procurement and supply chain (raw material), says, “National Green Highways Mission fits in with what we are already doing so, instead of farmers and community land in villages, we can move to the highways.”

Keen to get stretches of land for plantation along both sides of the highways, particularly in the southern states for, 20 years lease, Pandey states that ITC’s plan is to plant commercial as well as native trees suited to local conditions on a 80:20 ratio. “While the biodiversity plants will remain for the entire project period, some of the commercial trees will have a rotation of five years. We will maintain 400 trees per hectare at any given time,” assures Pandey, adding that this plan will make the task of greening the highways commercially viable and self-sustaining.

The plan outlined by Pandey is akin to the NGHM strategy to make commercial wood available to industries for manufacturing, while greening the highways. The emphasis on fruit, flower bearing and medicinal plants alongside the highways is also expected to benefit the local community to use the produce as resources for various enterprises like food processing, bamboo and jute products manufacturing, etc.

National Green Highways Mission is also roping in several public sector organizations to provide funds and support through CSR activities. So far, the mission has collaborated with Power Finance Corporation Ltd. (PFC) for plantations work on NH 7 in Nagpur region (Borkhedi – Wadner, & Khatara – Kelapur) covering 87 km stretch under its Adopt a Green Highways Program. PFC has provided Rs. 13 crore for the plantation and its maintenance for five years.

Dr A. K. Singh, Managing Director of the National Horticulture Board (NHB) believes that the plan to plant fruit bearing, flowering, medicinal trees besides agro-forestry will substantially increase the area under horticulture. He points to the fact that India has a rich biodiversity whether it is native horticulture or forest species. “Take for instance mangoes, it may be one crop but there are thousands of varieties. They are not just varieties but genetic diversities. All of the mango varieties may not be good in terms of fruit quality but they might be having some genes that may be able to confer resistance against diseases, insects, pathogens or some other things. So each and every plant species should be planted along the network of thousands of kilometers of highways passing through each and every geographical climatic condition, so that the genetic diversity is not lost and it can be utilised for future breeding programme,” states Singh.

The agriculture scientist stresses that climate change is a reality which is going to impose various restrictions. Many diseases and pests which were earlier not found in India may become common occurrences due to climatic changes increasingly being witnessed. “To check the rise in incidences of diseases and pests, diversity of the plantations will have to be meticulously maintained, which I am sure will happen,” Singh added.

Government studies have shown that the environment impact and the carbon sequestration potential of the mission will depend largely on the kind of species planted as also plantation management and maintenance.

Myriad Challenges

Globally, the concept of green highways has moved far beyond just lining the roads with fruit bearing and flowering trees to include deployment of green technologies and environment friendly practices as road infrastructure projects have a direct impact on the environment, community, and local-regional economy. Beyond providing just long stretches of smooth ride for faster connectivity, they have to provision for human settlements and animals living in farms, and also in the wilds if the road cuts through the protected forests.

Arnab Bandyopadhyay, Lead Transport Specialist, World Bank, states, “The green concept includes a suite of measures including tree plantation, bio engineering, use of low energy construction technology and materials, recycling of materials, energy efficient automobiles and traffic management (including solar traffic and street lighting), switching to clean fuels, recharging of ground water through smart drainage systems and more.”

The use of green highways, in its various forms, is most advanced in the USA, Europe (both continental Europe and Nordic countries) and Japan. In support of tree plantation, Bandyopadhyay says, “It is one of the most effective and relatively cheaper measures to take. Mature trees act as excellent carbon sinks and help in achieving the climate change mitigation agenda of green highways. Trees improve water absorption and prevent soil erosion and, thereby, enhancing climate change adaptation of highways.”

In India, however, the rapid pace of urbanisation and sheer scarcity of land remains a major challenge in creating a green buffer to vehicular noise, sink for air pollution, greenhouse gas emission and achieving another NGHM objective of managing rainwater for not just tending to the highway plantations but also for recharging of the ground water used up in the construction activities. Unfortunately, as road experts point out, most of the highways, including the newly constructed stretches lack proper provision for natural flow of water into drainages or water passages leading into a reservoir. As observed in most cities, storm water generates two way impacts in the form of water logging along the road, creating space crunch for both road users and road side dwellers.

A research paper published recently in the Journal of Indian Road Congress warns that “the thresholds identified for different parameters would vary for different climatic and bio-geographic regions. For instance it may not be possible to achieve even 15 to 20% of vegetation cover within the project area in the arid climate and hilly terrain due to lack of water and space respectively. Presence of rocky terrain will also restrict the percentage share of vegetation cover.”

The case study, co-authored by Dr. Anuradha Shukla of the Central Road Research Institute (CRRI), points out that if the storm water generated from road is not managed within the right of way, it creates flooding or water logging in the surrounding. Same is applicable to storm water generated from the surrounding uses. Though both of them have little to do with the other still they create nuisances when not managed in their respective sphere.

Another challenge pointed out by the research paper is of villages that lie alongside the highways. Problems arise if some of the villagers have their house at one side and the agricultural land on other side. With no easy access, it becomes difficult for the farmers to get across with the cattle and their plough; sometimes the water source for irrigation remains on other side of the road and in the absence of cross drainage facility they lose the water source. Similarly, wild animals in the absence of a continuous corridor have to adapt to living in a shrinking habitat.

This situation is not unique to India nor is the solution beyond reach. In the US for instance, the Washington state is implementing an estimated $1 billion Interstate highway project comprising 90 stretches across large swaths of the country, with special provision for the regional wildlife. In a truly wildlife-friendly approach, the completed Phase 1 of the project includes underpasses for animals such as deer and coyotes.

Located about an hour outside Seattle, the Gold Creek Bridges Undercrossing features a raised roadway, similar to a bridge over a waterway, reports worldhighways.com. Instead of vehicles, this foliage and tree covered over-bridge enables the local wildlife to cross the road without any risk to themselves or the drivers. Several other smaller underpasses and over-bridges have been built and are planned in the other phases of construction.

While these are expensive provisions, which do not eliminate the threat to the endangered animals, they definitely reduce the risks. Additionally, animals facing risk of extinction benefit from not having to cross a highway and thereby reduce the threat of a collision with vehicles passing on the road. Similar easy passageway across the highway also benefits the local population.

Like the industries, the road construction sector too faces the challenge of maintaining a check on costs while ensuring better production, construction and of course maintenance. This is at a time when raw materials are becoming scarce and the environmental laws regarding air pollution and noise disturbances are getting stricter. While NGHM offers some relief from air pollution and noise disturbance by providing a green barrier, there remains the question of sustainability.

The global concept of sustainability is the ability to meet our needs without compromising the ability of next generations to meet theirs. This concept integrates the economic, societal and environmental aspects. Highway construction by its very nature generates lots of energy and consumes a lot of fossil resources.

In Europe, the European Road Assessment Programme (EuroRAP) aims, through a constant assessment of road risks, to build a safer road system and to reduce the number of deaths on the road. According to the results of the EuroRAP Star Rating of the trunk roads in England, half of the motorways are rated 4-star. This is an example of how sustainability can be implemented in a road construction context.

The US is also very committed when it comes to implementing “green” actions in the road sector. Indeed, most of the green road rating systems in practice, have been initiated by the US.

Under the rating system, each stage of a project is evaluated to determine if the targets are being achieved and if not, analyze which stage needs to be improved. The goal is also to identify where sustainable practices can be implemented in the most efficient way to maximize the project sustainability. For instance, to reduce the cost without compromising on project quality “Bio-binders” are being used as materials for sustainable asphalt pavements. Bio-binders – also known as biopolymer- come from natural resources and are fully bio degradable. They are rather cost effective and show good thermal stability.

Sustainability can also be reached through the use of recycled materials (like crushed concrete for instance), which entails a reduction in the consumption of energy needed to import new materials besides the obvious benefits of using recycled materials. In India, under pressure from the Supreme Court to rid the capital of its mounting garbage disposal problems, plans are afoot to use the material from landfills to make highways, in the process doing away with the need to excavate and bring soil to lay the roads.

Though still in the nascent stage, the process of using waste plastic and rubber for laying of roads has begun. A good example of this according to Shukla is the effort of JUSCO, a 100 per cent subsidiary company of Tata Steel, which has constructed 12-15 kms road in the Tata command area of Jamshedpur city, as well as in the Tata Steel Works, besides widening 22 roads using the environment-friendly technology of utilising finely shredded waste plastic.

A World Bank draft report on ‘Improving Environmental Sustainability in Road Projects’ also stresses on the need to better balance the demands and impacts associated with the environment, community, and local-regional economy. “Implementing sustainable actions in projects can not only produce enhanced benefits and possibly reduce costs, but also demonstrate leadership in addressing the conservation, protection, and enhancement of the finite resources on which the planet depends,” the report states..

While new approaches and technologies will continue to be developed and adopted, the report states that the actual potential for addressing environmental sustainability only as part of a project environmental assessment or environment permit regulatory process is normally severely limited due to lack of regulatory specificity and focus (that is, environmental impact avoidance).

On the other hand, not all sustainability actions add to the overall cost of a project, instead, they may reduce material and energy consumption or other environmentally-related project costs. Many of the sustainability action may in fact render good return on investments, says the World Bank report. In addition, many of the criteria for the construction and operation and maintenance phases are actually part of the normal activities and thus are not additional, but affect how the activities are done (for example, material and energy usage).

In the road construction sector many initiatives have been implemented globally to reduce the ecological footprint of roads like use of Glow-in-the-dark roads markings or Dynamic paint through symbols on the road surface warning drivers of conditions ahead to minimize car accidents. Up ahead are plans to use solar energy or interactive wind-powered lights that will turn on only when a car approaches. In India too there are plans afoot to use solar and wind power for lighting highways.

While perceptions on the importance or value of some of these new technologies may differ, for the green highways mission to truly achieve its objective the canvas will have to be widened to include more focus on the engineering aspects right from design, to material usage, waste reduction, and recycling and reuse. Else neither the community nor the environmental needs will be fully met.

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Dr J V Sharma,
Senior Fellow, TERIz

The mission mandate and objective is very good but it can only be realised if the funds are forthcoming. No plans can work without political and financial support. For long there has been lack of political commitment, which is required to improve the forest/ green cover.

“If implemented properly, it will help India to achieve 24 per cent of the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) target (2.5- 3 billion tonnes) of carbon sequestration by 2030.”

The mission has been promised Rs. 5,000 crore or 1 per cent of the highway infrastructure projects cost but it remains to be seen whether it will be forthcoming. In 2008, the then government had announced the Green India Mission with promise of Rs, 46,000 crore but only around Rs. 150 crore was allocated for it. Generally, the announcement of such schemes is not matched with the requisite funds.

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G.S. Ghai,
Executive Director, Power Finance Corporation

We got the confidence to contribute to the project through our CSR funds due to it being undertaken by a specialised agency - the National Green Highway Mission (NGHM). The project packaging, the high plant survival rate mandate, focus on irrigation facilities, the strict project monitoring including through satellite, and the larger benefit to the local community influenced our decision. Further they gave us the detailed project report at the onset. We were impressed by their complete study, including the impact assessment. The fact that they are planting 1.5 feet saplings is good as it would ensure better survival of the plants.

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Subhomoy Ganguly,
Managing Director, Task Agritech Pvt Ltd

We have been given the task of plantation and maintenance a 10 km stretch in Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh, on commercial basis. We have so far completed planting of bamboo in 7 km on both sides. The idea is to make this green belt self-sustaining. The bamboo planted can be harvested regularly for a long period after four years without dispelling the forest cover. The plantation work along 7 km was completed in August over 27 days with the help of the locals, who will be given 65 per cent of bamboo sales proceeds as their remuneration for plantation and maintenance.

In fact, in many places where there were land issues, we have made the local land owners our partners.

We have planted two rows of bamboos, with a total of 660 plants per kilometre. We see good demand for our produce considering India is facing 50 per cent deficit. Our mandate is to plant and maintain the trees for five years for which we will be reimbursed. We have so far spent Rs. 18 lakhs.

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Dr Amrinder Kaur, IFS
PCCF, Haryana Forest Department

Under a MoU we have undertaken plantation of two stretches on both sides of NH65 and NH 10 near Rohtak and Hisar. Till September we have completed plantation of one lakh saplings - all indigenous varieties like neem, shisham, kachnar, peepal, etc. The selection has been based on the soil condition - water logged or dry.

“This is to be tree or green cover and will not be declared a forest (as it will restrict the use of the trees). None of the trees planted are for commercial use, but for green cover to reduce vehicular pollution. In case it is required in the future, we can use the area for planting trees for commercial purpose.”