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A breath of fresh air: Supreme Court's verdict propels climate justice to the forefront in India

All thanks to the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard, the Supreme Court of India has given climate justice the much-needed spotlight it deserves. In an unprecedented landmark ruling, on March 21, 2024, in the case of M.K. Ranjitsinh & Ors. v. Union of India & Ors., the Court expanded the interpretation of the Right to Life (Article 21) and the Right to Equality (Article 14) to include protection against the adverse effects of climate change. This ruling emphasises that the detrimental impacts of climate change infringe upon citizens' fundamental rights. It further necessitates judicial and legislative actions to safeguard environmental health.

The hows and why of the ruling:

It all began with a petition filed by wildlife conservationist M.K. Ranjitsinh, seeking to protect the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard from collisions with overhead power lines in Rajasthan and Gujarat. In this regard, the court emphasised the need to balance biodiversity protection with efforts to mitigate climate change, stating that it is not a matter of choosing one over the other between conservation and development. It went on to further rule that environmental degradation and climate change adversely affect not only wildlife but also human life and health, asserting that without a stable and clean environment, the right to life and health is merely theoretical. Recognising the undeniable link between climate change and the right to life, the Court underscored that environmental degradation disproportionately affects marginalised communities. It reasoned that climate change directly threatens essential aspects of life, such as access to clean air, water, and food, and highlighted the state's duty to protect its citizens from these threats. Upholding the principles of equality, the Court ensured that all individuals, regardless of socioeconomic background, have the right to a healthy environment. This groundbreaking judgement builds upon existing environmental jurisprudence in India, where the right to a clean environment has been previously recognised under Article 21.

Takeaways from  the ruling:

Elevating environmental issues to the forefront

The ruling acknowledges the adverse effects of climate change as a violation of fundamental rights, thereby placing environmental issues at the forefront of public and legal discourse. This recognition can drive legislative reforms and policy changes focused on environmental protection, compelling policymakers to create and enforce laws to reduce environmental harm.

Increasing public awareness and engagement

The decision is likely to increase public awareness and engagement on climate issues, fostering broader support for sustainable practices and environmental protection measures. By recognizing the right to a healthy environment, the Court empowers citizens to demand better environmental governance.

Legal precedent for climate litigation

This ruling sets a legal precedent for increased climate litigation in India, enabling citizens to approach constitutional courts to address climate-related grievances. It strengthens public participation in environmental governance, ensuring that governmental bodies and private entities adhere to their environmental responsibilities, thus fostering greater accountability and proactive measures to combat climate change.

Alignment with international obligations

The decision reinforces India's commitments to the Paris Agreement and acts as a conduit, highlighting the country's responsibility to mitigate climate change while safeguarding citizens' rights. It aligns national climate goals with international obligations, enhancing India's role on the global stage in the fight against climate change.

Limitations and challenges in enforcing the ruling :

Complexities in energy transition

While the Supreme Court's ruling is a positive step, translating it into action presents significant complexities. The energy transition in India in order to meet its climate goals requires major shifts in how the country adopts renewable energy and safeguards the environment. The government's classification of large hydropower and nuclear plants as 'renewable' is problematic due to their significant environmental and social impacts. This categorisation complicates efforts to develop genuinely sustainable energy policies.

Conflicting approvals in energy policy

While promoting renewable energy, the Court's ruling does not adequately address the problematic aspects of this transition. Mega solar and wind projects often bypass thorough Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs). This lack of rigorous assessment leads to substantial adverse effects on ecosystems and local communities, undermining the environmental protection goals of the ruling. New energy projects derailing environmental protection goals are particularly pronounced in the relentless approval of new coal mining projects.  Addressing energy wastage and redistributing power from luxury consumption to the underprivileged could be one way to reduce the need for new power generation.

Ensuring equity in climate action

The ruling acknowledges the disproportionate impact of climate change on marginalised communities; but for this to be reversed, we require policy measures that actively include these communities in decision-making processes. Achieving equity in climate action remains a significant challenge that necessitates deliberate and inclusive policy interventions.

International comparisons:

Netherlands: Urgenda Case

In 2015, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled in the Urgenda case, mandating the government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by 2020, compared to 1990 levels. This case is similar to the Indian ruling as both recognise the state's duty to protect its citizens from climate change. However, the Urgenda ruling explicitly set emission reduction targets, a strategy India could potentially adopt.  While India has established its own climate goals through its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), the Climate Action Tracker currently rates these actions as "Highly insufficient" highlighting a potential area for enhancement in India's climate litigation framework.

Switzerland:  Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz case

In this case, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Switzerland violated the human rights of a group of elderly women by not taking adequate measures to combat climate change. This case, brought by the KlimaSeniorinnen association, argued that Switzerland's insufficient climate action exposed them to life-threatening heatwaves, infringing on their right to life, and private and family life under Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights’.

USA: Juliana v. United States

The Juliana case in the United States involves youth plaintiffs arguing that the government’s failure to address climate change violates their constitutional rights. Although the case is still pending, it highlights the global trend of framing climate change as a human rights issue. Comparatively, the Indian ruling has already set a strong precedent by integrating climate justice within the framework of fundamental rights.

The above cases highlight the strengths and areas for improvement related to the Supreme Court of India's ruling on climate change. They provide valuable insights into setting clear emission targets, emphasising human rights protections, and maintaining sustained legal and public pressure.

Moving Beyond Legislation to Implementation:

The Supreme Court of India’s landmark ruling integrates environmental justice with fundamental human rights, bringing climate change to the centre of legal and public discussion. Its decision represents a significant milestone in India's environmental jurisprudence, signalling a shift towards addressing climate change through legal avenues. However, moving from acknowledgement to action entails a multifaceted approach. This includes emphasising the need for mandatory EIA for all large-scale projects, regardless of whether they are classified as "renewable" or not. However, even certain projects for which EIAs have been mandated continue to cause environmental harm. To address this bureaucratic challenge in India, it is crucial to establish robust oversight mechanisms and enforcement frameworks. This involves empowering regulatory bodies with adequate resources and expertise, implementing stringent penalties for non-compliance and fostering transparency and accountability in the project approval process.Strengthening institutional capacity is crucial, involving enhancing the technical expertise of environmental agencies and providing adequate funding for climate initiatives. Community engagement and education are vital for driving grassroots support for environmental policies, particularly for those most affected by climate change. Finally, international collaboration can enhance India's capacity to tackle climate change, leveraging support from other nations, NGOs, and international bodies for technical and financial resources.


The Supreme Court of India's ruling marks a significant milestone in integrating environmental justice with fundamental human rights. By comparing this ruling with similar international decisions, it is evident that while India's judicial recognition of climate change impacts is progressive, there is room for more concrete policy measures and institutional responses. As India steps onto the global stage in the fight against climate change, this ruling serves as a clarion call for transformative action, urging policymakers, citizens, and international partners to unite in safeguarding our planet and its people. The path ahead is challenging, but with concerted effort, it holds the promise of a sustainable and equitable future.



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