A distinct right: On climate change and species protection

The right to be free of climate change effects comes amid a conservation dilemma 

April 10, 2024 12:20 am | Updated 12:03 pm IST

In recognising the right to be free of the adverse effects of climate change as a distinct fundamental right, the Supreme Court of India has advanced the case for a healthy environment and sustainable development. The apex court had long ago recognised the right to live in a clean environment as part of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution. However, the Court has now reasoned that the right to be protected from climate change and the right to a wholesome environment are two sides of the same coin; and given the increasing threat from climate change year after year, the time has come to treat the former as a distinct right. It has explained how the vagaries of climate change have an adverse impact on life through factors ranging from rising temperatures, storms and droughts to food shortages due to crop failure and shifts in vector-borne diseases. If environmental degradation and climate change lead to acute shortage of food and water, the right to equality will also be violated, as the poorer, under-served communities will not be able to cope with the adversity. The Court’s emphasis on climate change came in a case that pitted the concern over multiple deaths of the Great Indian Bustard due to solar power transmission lines against India’s international obligation to meet its emission reduction and increase its energy capacity through non-fossil fuel sources.

The context is a conundrum peculiar to some parts of the country. The Bench was faced with a plea by three Union Ministries — Environment, Power, and New and Renewable Energy — seeking modification of the Court’s April 2021 order that sought to protect the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard from being killed in collisions with power transmission lines put up by solar energy companies in Rajasthan and Gujarat. The earlier order had directed that all low-voltage power lines in both ‘priority’ (where the bird is known to live) and ‘potential’ (where conservation efforts are going on) areas be laid underground and existing overhead lines converted to underground lines. It had also directed that high-voltage lines in identified areas be shifted below the ground. The modification was sought as conversion to underground lines was technically not possible and too expensive and the renewable energy sector was adversely affected by the order, especially because the area had considerable solar and wind energy potential. The Court has now asked an expert committee to decide on the extent of underground and overground lines and recalled its earlier orders. It is unfortunate that the goal of reducing the country’s carbon footprint and the need to protect a critically endangered species are at odds with each other. The sooner a solution is found the better.

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