Right against climate change a distinct fundamental and human right, SC judgment

The Supreme Court’s judgment noted that the right to a healthy environment, safe from the ill-effects of climate change, was a “fundamental human right”.  File

The Supreme Court’s judgment noted that the right to a healthy environment, safe from the ill-effects of climate change, was a “fundamental human right”.  File
| Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The Supreme Court has recognised a much-felt, but less articulated right against the adverse effects of climate change as a distinct fundamental right in the Constitution.

“It is yet to be articulated that the people have a right against the adverse effects of climate change. This is perhaps because this right and the right to a clean environment are two sides of the same coin. As the havoc caused by climate change increases year-by-year, it becomes necessary to articulate this as a distinct right. It is recognised by Articles 14 (right to equality) and 21 (right to life),” the Supreme Court observed in a judgment released on April 6.

The judgment came in a case connected with the survival of the endangered Great Indian Bustard species.

Watch | Why is the Great Indian Bustard endangered?

An order was pronounced in open court on March 21, constituting an expert committee to examine the problem faced by the bird species whose natural habitat and flight routes collide with power transmission lines in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

The case had been posted for further hearing in August 2024. However, the court, unannounced, uploaded a judgment during the weekend. The text of the judgment mainly focuses several paragraphs on climate change and its adversities.

Climate change and human rights

Linking the right against climate change to Articles 21 and 14, Chief Justice Chandrachud said the rights to life and equality cannot be fully realised without a clean, stable environment.

“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. 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… 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 judgment said.

The court also highlighted the interconnection between climate change and various human rights, including the right to health, indigenous rights, gender equality, and the right to development

The judgment noted that the right to a healthy environment, safe from the ill-effects of climate change, was a “fundamental human right”.

“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,” the court noted.

The court underscored the important role solar power would play in arresting the ills of climate change.

India’s solar potential

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.

Also read: India’s solar capacity: Milestones and challenges

The court noted that the country was endowed with vast solar energy potential and received about 5,000 trillion kWh per year of solar energy.

Solar photovoltaic power offered immense scalability in India, allowing for effective harnessing of solar energy.

India’s goal to achieve 500 GW of non-fossil-based electricity generation capacity by 2030 aligned 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 is from non-fossil fuel sources. According to the Renewable Energy Statistics 2023 released by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), India has the 4th largest installed capacity of renewable energy.

India’s commitment to transitioning to non-fossil fuels is not just a strategic energy goal but a fundamental necessity for environmental preservation. Investing in renewable energy not only addresses these urgent environmental concerns but also yields a plethora of socio-economicbenefits.

By shifting towards renewable energy sources, India enhances its energy security, reducing reliance on volatile fossil fuel markets and mitigating the risks associated with energy scarcity. Additionally, the adoption of renewable energy technologies helps in curbing air pollution, thereby improving public health and reducing healthcare costs

Also read: Fired up and plugged in – Driving India’s energy security and decarbonisation this decade

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 which relates to climate change and the attendant concerns. However, this does not mean that the people of India do not have a right against the adverse effects of climate change.

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