Now Reading
India’s Clean Energy Transition Should Lead With Accountability – Not Hubris

India’s Clean Energy Transition Should Lead With Accountability – Not Hubris

A great Indian bustard in Kutch. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Prajwalkm, CC BY-SA 3.0

On August 12, 2021, India achieved the milestone of installing 100 GW of renewable energy generation capacity. A week earlier, villagers in Gujarat’s Kutch District were protesting against one of the contributors to this milestone – wind turbines that criss-cross the 500 sq. km Sangnara forest that is also used occasionally for cattle grazing. These villagers have been challenging the installation of windmills on common forest and grazing lands, for the last two years.

A month earlier, local police dispersed a protest by villagers in Gajner village in Rajasthan’s Bikaner district. The villagers were protesting overhead electricity transmission cables of renewable energy companies, across common pasture-lands. Once these electricity lines are laid, they could restrict villagers’ access to these lands that may not be recognised as commons anymore.

These lines to transport electricity generated by renewable energy companies also pose ecological challenges. In March 2021, the Supreme Court of India ordered Gujarat and Rajasthan to convert overhead transmission lines to underground ones and so minimise their risk of killing the great Indian bustard. These critically endangered birds share their home range with renewable energy projects. The overhead electricity lines have killed nearly 15% of these birds.

The court constituted a committee to seek opinion on the feasibility of undergrounding these electric lines, while also mandating the installation of diverters on overhead wires to reduce bird mortalities.

These episodes of collective and judicial action are emerging alongside narratives of global climate emergency and India’s ambitions as a renewable energy leader. Some reactions to the court order brand it as ‘anti-development’ and more interestingly, ‘anti-climate’, since it argues that this choice of preferring to conserve the bird’s habitat over setting up overhead transmission wires will derail India’s clean energy transition. Such narratives may create an unhelpful hierarchy of priorities between national climate commitments and local impacts of these ambitions.

These conflicts arise from a limited acknowledgement that sites where renewable energy projects are installed are also ecosystems that humans and other species rely on. Disturbing these systems will contribute to negative impacts of varying intensities – on socio-economic, ecological and cultural aspects – across time.

The social identities and positions of those experiencing this impact also determines their intensity. Impacts on local and regional biodiversity, increased exposure to socio-ecological vulnerabilities, restricted access to sites due to land-use changes, and intensive reliance on water and land resources make utility-scale renewable energy projects, ironically, comparable to other large infrastructure and mining projects.

Mechanisms to understand and address these impacts, not just at the project site but over a broader region and time frame (cumulative impacts), remains limited because of the perception that renewable energy is benign. For instance, renewable energy projects situated outside zones identified as ecologically sensitive are exempt from environmental impact assessments.

It is imperative to acknowledge, understand and develop approaches to address these negative impacts, rather than continue to accelerate the transition, denying these consequences. Approaches such as sensitively designing renewable energy parks to allow for greater access for grazing animals and pastoralists, promoting horticulture under solar panels, setting up diverters to forewarn birds of obstructions in their flight path, are some ways to minimise the inevitable impacts of furthering the clean energy transition.

However, unlike other large-scale development, the timing of India’s clean energy transition also places it in an exceptional position. This position allows us to not only mitigate impacts, but also to ensure the advancement of renewable energy is sensitive to restoring and sustaining the ecosystems where these projects are situated. Renewable energy must also be responsible energy.

This requires a commitment from all stakeholders representing the renewable energy sector to ensure that the various steps in producing clean energy – from extraction of raw materials to disposal of equipment that have reached the end of their life – are environmentally safe, respect rights and equitable.

While technological breakthroughs and financial impetuses are welcome to address these impacts, they are insufficient. Addressing these impacts also requires acute awareness of those who are forced to bear a greater burden of the costs of negative impacts and identifying mechanisms to distribute them more equitably.

The events in Gujarat and Rajasthan are a humble reminder that climate ambitions must also be accountable to social justice and uphold basic rights. Reactions that label these events as ‘distractions’ to India’s climate priorities are dangerous, as they unhelpfully separate India’s climate goals from its multi-layered social and environmental consequences. These are not conflicting trade-offs, but facets of the complex dynamics of the clean energy transition that must be engaged with.

The short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, by Ursula K. Le Guin, is about a utopian city that enjoys unlimited happiness but at a cost: one child must experience unspeakable suffering in exchange. In the same vein, as we transition to a low carbon future, we must ensure that the negative impacts of the clean energy transition are not justified to achieve climate ambitions. Instead, they must meaningfully engage across the various scales of the transition from national commitments to local impacts.

India’s clean energy transition must engage beyond greenhouse gas emissions and gigawatt targets to ensure a nurturing and equitable future for its people and the planet.

Uttara Narayan is a researcher who works on clean energy governance at the World Resources Institute, India.

Scroll To Top