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The Supreme Court’s simplistic view on energy production

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By Ashish Kothari

· 4 min read

When some of us environmentalists woke up on April 8 to newspaper headlines about the Supreme Court pronouncing the right to be free of ill-effects of climate change as a fundamental right, it was like a ray of hope in the midst of a gloomy ecological scenario. India and the rest of the world are staring at multiple collapses with historically unprecedented impacts on humans and the rest of life, as we race towards a 1.5-degree rise in average temperatures – and who knows how much more.

Governments across the planet have failed to act on the overwhelming scientific evidence of the catastrophe we face, fossil fuel corporations continue to prioritise shareholder profits over life and the world’s rich live without concern for the poor. In such a situation, such a judgment has to be welcomed.

The Supreme Court has interpreted Articles 21 and 14 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantee the right to life and right to equality before the law, to include protection of the climate. Such an extension has significant potential to be converted into actions that can undo, mitigate or help adaptation to the ill-impacts of the climate crisis.

In particular, building on its observations regarding the disproportionate share of impacts felt by already marginalised and poor sections of society, the judgement could be the basis for much-needed corrective action.

But on many counts, the verdict is also deeply flawed. We do not here go into the problematic aspects concerning the conservation of the Great Indian Bustard, whose habitat is threatened by mega-solar and wind projects in western India – the core subject matter of the petition that led to the current judgement. Others more experienced than us such as conservationist Debadityo Sinha have already pointed them out.

Here, we deal with the other crucial aspects of the judgement, about power production. The court has stated that given India’s commitments, as made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 26th Climate COP in 2021 to review the progress of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the establishment of solar and wind power parks is crucial.

The commitments included net zero carbon emissions by 2070, generating 500 GW by non-fossil fuel sources and a 50% share of total power generation to renewable energy by 2030. Any obstructions to these, the Supreme Court says, are likely to lead to greater coal-based production, with dire consequences for the climate (and more pollution). It has tried to balance such actions relating to climate, needing land in Rajasthan and Gujarat, with the imperative of protecting the Great Indian Bustard.

In doing so, however, it has taken a rather simplistic view of the energy transition India needs to make. Certainly, the country needs to significantly increase renewable energy and scale down fossil fuel-based energy production. But its transition scenario is flawed on several counts.

For one, in “non-fossil-fuel” and “renewable” energy, the government includes large hydropower and nuclear plants. Both have enormous ecological, social and other costs. The construction of hydropower mega-dams in the Himalayan region have caused destabilisation, ecological loss, while displacing communities and dispossessing them of their lands and other resources their livelihoods depend on.

At least two major dam-bursts in very recent times (in Uttarakhand and Sikkim) are dire warnings of the folly of such construction in fragile, unstable Himalayan areas. Nuclear power has led to forced displacement, the curtailment of democratic rights as it is shrouded in secrecy and the fear of generations of contamination by untreatable nuclear waste. Across India, people’s movements continue to resist the establishment of nuclear plants and face enormous repression from the government.

Given that renewable energy projects are excluded from the environment impact assessment and environmental clearance procedures, their impacts are not even assessed, let alone acknowledged and redressed (if it were even possible to redress them). Notably, the court has not sought a comprehensive environment impact assessment or social impact assessment of the projects in Rajasthan and Gujarat that it has accepted as justified from a climate angle.

Third, the court’s fond hope that renewable energy will be more accessible to the poor is not based on evidence in the case of mega-projects. Their centralised nature means that they require long-distance transmission, so their uneven distribution to the rich and the poor will be the same as that of any fossil fuel-based electricity.

This article is also published on Scroll. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Ashish Kothari is a globally recognized environmentalist who has spent over 40 years of his career tackling key environmental and climate change-related issues. Ashish is the Founder of Kalpavriksh, a non-profit organization working on environmental and social issues at local, national and global levels. He served as a member of the Steering Committees of the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), and a coordinator for 'India’s National Biodiversity Strategy & Action Plan'. Ashish has authored and edited 30+ books and 300+ articles.

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