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Supreme Court: Climate Crisis Affects Citizens’ Right to Life

Climate change impacts the constitutional guarantee of right to life, the Supreme Court said in a recent judgment, emphasizing that India must priorities clean energy initiatives such as solar power as citizens have a right to be free from the adverse effects of the climate emergency.

The judgment came on a petition by wildlife activist MK Ranjitsinh and others to protect the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), a critically endangered bird found only in Rajasthan and Gujarat. The court recalled an earlier order of April 2021 that required undergrounding of overhead transmission lines across an area of over 80,000 sq km in the two states after the Union government pointed out concerns on feasibility of implementing the order.

Moreover, since the major solar and wind energy producing installations of the country fall in the same area, the Centre claimed the court’s directions will harm India’s global commitments to reduce the carbon footprint by increasing dependence on renewable energy sources.

By the present order, passed on March 21, but uploaded recently, the bench formed an expert committee comprising independent experts, members of the National Board of Wildlife, representatives of power companies, and former and serving bureaucrats drawn from departments of environment and forests and ministry of new and renewable energy (MNRE) to suggest ways to balance two objectives – the conservation of the bird and India’s sustainable development goals. The committee’s first report is expected by July 31.

Accepting the concerns expressed by Centre, the bench headed by chief justice of India Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud said, “Without a clean environment which is stable and unimpacted by the vagaries of climate change, the right to life is not fully realised. The right to health (which is a part of the right to life under Article 21) is impacted due to factors such as air pollution, shifts in vector-borne diseases, rising temperatures, droughts, shortages in food supplies due to crop failure, storms, and flooding… From these, it emerges that there is a right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change.”

Discussing how tribals in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and such other indigenous communities that depend on nature, the court said, “The relationship that indigenous communities have with nature may be tied to their culture or religion. The destruction of their lands and forests or their displacement from their homes may result in a permanent loss of their unique culture. In these ways too, climate change may impact the constitutional guarantee of the right to equality.”

“If climate change and environmental degradation lead to acute food and water shortages in a particular area, poorer communities will suffer more than richer ones…The inability of underserved communities to adapt to climate change or cope with its effects violates the right to life as well as the right to equality,” said the bench, also comprising justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra.

The Centre had told the court that India’s goal to achieve 500 GW of non-fossil-based electricity generation capacity by 2030 aligns with its efforts to be net zero by 2070. In 2023-24, out of the total generation capacity of 9,943 MW added, 8,269 was from non-fossil fuel sources. According to the Renewable Energy Statistics 2023 released by the International Renewable Energy Agency, India has the 4th largest installed capacity of renewables.

“Beyond mere adherence to international agreements, India’s pursuit of sustainable development reflects the complex interplay between environmental conservation, social equity, economic prosperity and climate change,” the court held.

“Clean energy aligns with the human right to a healthy environment,” the judgment said, pointing out specific concerns of “unequal energy access” for developing countries like India, where women spend an average of 1.4 hours a day collecting firewood and an average four hours cooking.

“Unequal energy access disproportionately affects women and girls due to their gender roles and responsibilities such as through time spent on domestic chores and unpaid care work… The importance of prioritizing clean energy initiatives to ensure environmental sustainability and uphold human rights obligations cannot be understated,” the court said.

Stating that solar energy stands out as a “pivotal solution” in the global transition towards cleaner energy sources, the judgment said, “It is imperative for states like India, to uphold their obligations under international law, including their responsibilities to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to climate impacts, and protect the fundamental rights of all individuals to live in a healthy and sustainable environment.”

Transitioning to renewable energy is not just an environmental imperative but also a strategic investment in India’s future prosperity, resilience and sustainability, the court said. “The promotion of renewable energy sources plays a crucial role in promoting social equity by ensuring access to clean and affordable energy for all segments of society, especially in rural and underserved areas. This contributes to poverty alleviation, enhances quality of life, and fosters inclusive growth and development across the nation,” it added.

Of late, the court noted that globally courts are confronted with issues of climate change and human rights. Though India has a governmental policy and rules and regulations to combat the adverse effects of the climate crisis, the bench observed, “There is no single or umbrella legislation in India which relates to climate change and the attendant concerns…this does not mean that the people of India do not have a right against the adverse effects of climate change.”

It is imperative for India to not only find alternatives to coal-based fuels but also secure its energy demands in a sustainable manner as the court noted that India has pressing reasons to urgently shift to solar power. “India is likely to account for 25% of global energy demand growth over the next two decades; rampant air pollution emphasizes the need for cleaner energy sources; and declining groundwater levels and decreasing annual rainfall underscore the importance of diversifying energy sources,” it said.

The vast expanse of arid desert terrain and an abundance of sunlight in Gujarat and Rajasthan serves as prime areas for solar power generation. “By harnessing this natural advantage, India can significantly reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and transition towards cleaner energy sources,” the judgment said.

While asking the committee to determine the scope, feasibility and extent of overhead and underground electric lines in the area identified as priority GIB areas and propose steps for long-term conservation and protection of the GIB, the court noted the dilemma of protecting against climate change and preserving the critically endangered bird.

“It is not a binary choice between conservation and development but rather a dynamic interplay between protecting a critically endangered species and addressing the pressing global challenge of climate change… If this Court were to direct that the power transmission lines be undergrounded in the entire area delineated above, many other parts of the environment would be adversely impacted,” it said.

For the long-term survival of the bird, the Court’s April 2021 order also required bird diverters to be installed along power lines. The court asked the committee to assess the efficacy of bird diverters and lay down specifications for it besides identifying and adding suitable areas for extending protection to the endangered bird.

A Wildlife Institute of India report, which formed the basis for passing the April 2021 direction, identified 13,663 sq km as “priority area”, 80,680 sq km as “potential areas”; and 6,654 sq km as “additional important areas” for the GIB.

The GIB is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The GIB population in India was said to be 150 at the time when the April 2021 direction was passed. Since then, efforts are on to increase their population through captive breeding.

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(Source: HT)

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