The Great Indian Bustard.
Sounds like I’m abusing someone, but I am actually talking about a bird. A critically endangered bird that was once a strong candidate to become the National Bird of India, but is now, seen as a nuisance to India’s green goals.
How did this bird go from being a potential national icon to a villain in India’s climate movement? And is this justified? Today, we discuss.
Threat of extinction
Great Indian Bustards (GIBs) call the grasslands of Rajasthan, Gujrat, Maharashtra, and Karnataka their home. This region also gets a lot of wind and sunlight, making it prime real estate for solar and wind projects.
That is bad news for the birds because they have some habits and characteristics that don’t allow them to coexist with renewable energy projects. GIBs have poor eyesight, tend to fly low, look down towards the ground rather than what is in front of it in the air, can’t focus on things in front of them, and can’t turn quickly while flying because it is quite large and heavy.
So they are quite…shocked…when they hit a power transmission line and get electrocuted.
There are roughly 100 GIBs left in India. A Wildlife Institute of India report found that 18 of them die every year by colliding into power lines. On top of this, their habitat, the grasslands, are termed as “revenue wastelands” in government records, making it very easy to convert the land into farms, industrial parks or renewable energy projects.
All in all, the situation doesn’t look good for the birds. If things continue as they are, the birds will be extinct in the next few years.
The Supreme Court steps in…
So, in April earlier this year, the Supreme Court of India responded to a petition on this matter by addressing their biggest threat. In their ruling, they instructed all power transmission lines in this potential and priority habitats of the GIB to go underground immediately.
However, this ruling increases the cost of solar and wind projects in the region by several crores of rupees. Some estimate that up to 20GW of renewable energy production will be affected because of this.
News outlets have reported this ruling with a very weird narrative. The reports claim that through this ruling, we are sacrificing the “bigger” environmental goal of renewable energy generation to protect these birds because India’s climate goals heavily rely on its ability to scale renewable energy generation. That is how the GIB suddenly became a villain in India’s climate movement.
A problematic narrative: Low carbon = environment-friendly
This story as an example of a one-dimensional narrative of environmental protection, where environmental protection simply means lowering carbon emissions and mitigating climate change.
This happened during the Aarey forest controversy in 2019. The forest was being felled for the Mumbai metro network which, supporters claimed, would remove several cars from the road and reduce carbon emissions.
But what about everything else that the Aarey forest was doing? This was a mature forest ecosystem that was home for urban wildlife, regulated local temperatures, improved air quality, and helped control urban floods (something Mumbai is very familiar with). Compensating for the felling by planting trees in other locations is not going to restore these ecosystem services.
The environment is more than carbon emissions and climate change. The environment provides us with several services. We need to safeguard all of these services, or at least consider them in a cost-benefit analysis.
In the case of the GIB, the news articles seem to be saying that it’s okay to let one creature disappear from the face of the planet if we can expand our renewable energy generation, cheaply and quickly.
But saving the GIB is not just about preventing a bird’s extinction. To protect the bird, we need to protect its habitat: the grasslands. The grasslands are a unique ecosystem. It provides livelihood to grazers, who are the backbone of the country’s meat and dairy industries. It is home to unique wildlife like the Lesser Florican, MacQueen’s Bustard and other threatened species. It helps regulate local climate and controls soil erosion.
On top of all this, grasslands are excellent carbon sinks. The exact amount of carbon they capture depends on how the grassland is managed and is still being studied, but one 2014 study estimated that the world’s grasslands can sequester 200-800 million tCO2e by 2030. And in case you have forgotten, India has another climate goal. India has committed to increase additional carbon sink by 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2e. Right now, India aims of doing this only through forest and tree cover but grasslands can (and should) be a part of this goal!
So, this narrative that a lot of news articles have propagated is wrong.
The GIBs ARE NOT STANDING IN THE WAY OF INDIA’S GREEN GOALS because saving GIBs would protect a variety of ecosystem services and potentially contribute to India’s climate goals!
Why are such narratives created?
Perhaps people are misinformed and don’t know/understand ecosystem services. Or it is a case of deliberate disinformation to serve profit motives.
See, I am not against renewable energy projects or metro projects.
Renewable energy IS good for the environment, and we need to expand its capacity. And this ruling doesn’t prohibit renewable energy projects in the region. It just asks the project developers to make some modifications. Yes, this incurs an additional cost, but give the strong political will behind renewable energy generation in the country, I think funding can be arranged. Solar and wind projects can be also taken up in other locations. The GIBs have just this one habitat.
The true nature of sustainable development
This ruling is not a case of choosing nature over development or sacrificing India’s green goals. This is what sustainable development looks like. It is complicated and requires consideration of several different aspects of nature and the ecosystem services it provides. It isn’t the most cost-effective option, it may not give the highest profit margins, but it is a way to develop AND safeguard nature.
The Supreme Court recognized this in its ruling, by saying that despite cost implications, they want to balance development with the rights of other creatures. And I see nothing wrong with that.
What do you think? Is this Supreme Court ruling too harsh? Is there a better (cheaper) way to harness the region’s solar and wind potential without killing these birds and destroying their habitat? Let me know in the comments.
- BNHS and TCF press release
- Image credits: Devesh Gadhavi