Experts Welcome Supreme Court ruling on Climate Change
Experts Welcome Supreme Court ruling on Climate Change

Experts Hail SC Ruling on Climate Change but Warn Against Impacts of Renewable Energy Projects

The Supreme Court judgment, expanding the scope of Article 14 (right to equality before the law) and Article 21 (right to life) to include the "right against the adverse effects of climate change", came on a petition about the need to conserve the Great Indian Bustard - a critically endangered bird species.

Policy experts on Monday said the Supreme Court's ruling recognising the right against climate change as a fundamental human right will promote serious conversations on the crucial subject. However, they stressed that India's transition to clean energy to fight climate change must not lead to environmental injustices. 

The Supreme Court judgment, expanding the scope of Article 14 (right to equality before the law) and Article 21 (right to life) to include the "right against the adverse effects of climate change", came on a petition about the need to conserve the Great Indian Bustard - a critically endangered bird species. 

Great Indian Bustards are mainly found in Rajasthan and Gujarat, and the alarming decrease in their numbers is attributed to frequent collisions with overhead power transmission lines, including those of solar plants, near their habitats. 

The apex court recalled an April 2021 order that mandated the undergrounding of overhead transmission lines across an area of more than 80,000 square kilometres and set up a committee to find a balance between the conservation of the Great Indian Bustard and renewable energy infrastructure in the two states.

It noted that India's move towards non-fossil fuels is not just about energy strategy but is crucial for environmental preservation. Transitioning to renewable sources boosts energy security, reduces dependence on unstable fossil fuel markets and the risks of energy shortages. Adopting renewable technologies also helps reduce air pollution, leading to better public health and lower healthcare expenses, it said. 

Climate activist Harjeet Singh said India's transition to clean energy, particularly solar power, "must not replicate the environmental injustices entrenched in the fossil fuel legacy". 

Priya Pillai, head of programme - state climate action at the Asian Society for Academic Research, said renewable energy projects in states such as Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are impacting marginalised communities who rely on natural resources. She said coexisting with nature is more important than solely relying on technological solutions and advocated for policy changes to protect natural ecosystems. 

Pillai said her research into socio-ecological impacts of largescale renewables in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu revealed adverse effects on small farmers, landless labourers, pastoral communities especially women facing displacement or reduced access to essential resources due to land-grab issues associated with solar plant developments. 

The Pavagada Solar Park in Karnataka impeded small farmers and landless labourers' access to open natural ecosystems, forcing them to sell off their sheep and goats or migrate, she said. 

Debadityo Sinha, senior resident fellow and lead of the climate and ecosystems team at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, said such recognition for environmental rights indicate matters of public concern and highlight deficiencies in current laws and policies. 

The recognition of the "right against adverse effects of climate change" by the highest court is expected to set a notable legal precedent. This is likely to impact public narratives on environmental issues around the climate crisis and could shape laws and policies in the coming years, he said. 

"However, if we talk about the conservation of the Great Indian Bustard, the judgment includes several assumptions and statements that lack scientific evidence and also deviates from the precautionary principle in environmental laws," Sinha said. 

"For instance, despite well-documented instances of mortality among the Great Indian Bustard due to transmission lines, the judgment dismisses the potential conservation benefits of undergrounding these lines. Instead, it emphasises addressing other threats such as low fecundity, habitat fragmentation, loss of prey, and predation. Such observations undermine scientific rationale, set a problematic legal precedent, and send a problematic message to policymakers," he added. 

Manshi Asher, a researcher, and an activist working on environment justice issues, said the judgment needs to be examined closely because it is being invoked to justify large-scale centralised solar production and transmission, which has a high material footprint involving massive land-use change, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity. 

Highlighting the impact of renewable energy projects on forest rights and the environment in the Himalayas, she said hydropower projects and transmission lines have resulted in the felling of thousands of trees, causing irreversible ecological damage. 

In districts like Kinnaur (Himachal Pradesh), the endangered chilgoza pines and precious cedars have been lost to hydropower and their transmission," Asher said, adding that decentralised power generation will reduce the socio-ecological impacts of renewable energy projects. 

Climate activist Singh said decentralised, community-owned solar systems not only empower local communities and generate livelihoods but also mitigate the extensive land and infrastructure demands characteristic of large-scale projects. 

"We envision a future where energy justice and environmental sustainability walk hand in hand, guiding us towards a more equitable and resilient world," he said. 

Avinash Chanchal of Greenpeace India said the ruling should pave the way for some serious conversation on accountability for these climate impacts. The climate activist expressed hope that the ruling will lead to a legal framework to hold the government and corporations accountable for their climate inaction. 

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