In a landmark judgment released on April 6, the Supreme Court of India brought to light an often unarticulated but deeply felt right against the adverse effects of climate change. 

The three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, consisting of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra, convened to hear a writ petition filed by conservationist MK Ranjitsinh concerning the conservation of two endangered bird species: the Great Indian Bustard and the Lesser Florican.

In previous rulings, the apex court has affirmed that citizens possess the fundamental right to a clean environment and clean air. The petitioner in this case sought the implementation of an “emergency response plan” aimed at safeguarding the Bustard.

On March 21, an order was issued in an open court, establishing an expert committee tasked with investigating the challenges encountered by bird species whose natural habitats and flight paths intersect with power transmission lines in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Although the case was scheduled for further hearing in August 2024, the court unexpectedly released a judgment over the weekend. The content of the judgment predominantly centers on climate change and its adverse impacts, with several paragraphs dedicated to this critical issue.

Chief Justice Chandrachud emphasized the interconnectedness between climate change and fundamental human rights, particularly the right to life and equality enshrined in Articles 21 and 14 of the Constitution.

The Link Between Climate Change and Human Rights

In its judgment, the Supreme Court of India eloquently elucidated the profound connection between climate change and fundamental human rights, particularly emphasizing the implications for the right to life and equality guaranteed by Articles 21 and 14 of the Constitution.

The court stated, “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.” 

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By framing climate change as a threat to these core rights, the court underscored the imperative of addressing environmental degradation to ensure the holistic well-being of individuals and communities.

Moreover, the judgment aptly pointed out how climate change exacerbates existing inequalities, disproportionately impacting vulnerable populations and hindering their ability to access essential resources and opportunities.

The court noted, “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.”

Solar Power as a Solution to Climate Change

Recognizing the urgent need to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change, the Supreme Court emphasized the pivotal role of solar power in India’s transition towards sustainable energy sources.

Citing concerns such as escalating energy demand, rampant air pollution, and dwindling water resources, the judgment underscored the imperative of adopting cleaner and renewable energy alternatives.

The court noted, “India urgently needed to shift to solar power due to three issues – One, the country is likely to account for 25% of global energy demand growth over the next two decades; Two, rampant air pollution emphasizes the need for cleaner energy sources; Three, declining groundwater levels and decreasing annual rainfall.” 

Solar energy emerged as a promising solution, given India’s vast solar potential, with an estimated annual solar energy reception of 5,000 trillion kWh.

The court highlighted the scalability and effectiveness of solar photovoltaic power in harnessing this potential, advocating for its widespread adoption to meet the country’s energy needs while mitigating environmental degradation.

Additionally, the judgment emphasized India’s commitment to achieving 500 GW of non-fossil-based electricity generation capacity by 2030, aligning with global efforts towards climate mitigation and sustainable development.

Policy and Legislative Framework

Despite governmental initiatives to combat climate change, the Supreme Court noted the absence of comprehensive legislation specifically addressing climate change concerns in India.

However, the court affirmed the existence of a fundamental right against the adverse effects of climate change, underscoring the need for robust legal and policy frameworks to safeguard this right and mitigate environmental risks.

The judgment emphasized, “Violations of the right to a healthy environment can reverberate across numerous rights domains, including the right to life, personal integrity, health, water, and housing, as well as procedural rights such as information, expression, association, and participation. 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.” 

It called for proactive measures to ensure the protection of vulnerable communities and ecosystems while promoting sustainable development and environmental stewardship.

Additionally, the court highlighted the importance of enacting legislation that aligns with international best practices and effectively addresses the multifaceted challenges posed by climate change.

Despite governmental policy and rules and regulations recognising the adverse effects of climate change and seeking to combat it, there is no single or umbrella legislation in India that relates to climate change and the attendant concerns. However, this does not mean that the people of India do not have a right to the adverse effects of climate change. Although these are not justiciable provisions of the Constitution, they are indications that the Constitution recognises the importance of the natural world.

The Supreme Court’s judgment marks a significant step towards recognizing climate change as a fundamental human right, intertwined with principles of equality, health, and environmental integrity.

By advocating for the expansion of renewable energy, particularly solar power, and calling for comprehensive legislative measures, the court underscores the urgency of addressing climate change and its adverse impacts.

Moving forward, concerted efforts are needed to uphold this right and mitigate the challenges posed by climate change for the well-being of present and future generations.

Feature image designed by Saudamini Seth

Sources: The Quint, The Hindu, The Indian Express

Find the blogger: Katyayani Joshi

This post is tagged under: Supreme Court, climate change, citizens, DY Chandrachud, Solar energy, photovoltaic cells, environmental stewardship, legislation, human rights, equality, health, renewable energy, future, sustainable development, policy, safeguard, gender roles

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