22nd April 2022 will be the 52nd year since the observation of Earth Day. A day that marked the birth of the modern environment movement across the West in the back drop of protests against war and Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring. Earth Day in the 1990s became a global call for action drawing attention of the world to the developing environmental crisis as a fallout of the Rio Summit 1992.
Now we are enduring climate change impacts. The IPCC report 2022 warns if global carbon emissions are not reduced substantially, heat and humidity will surpass human tolerance and this can seriously impact human health and the economy. In its summary for policymakers, IPCC raises hope that “(w)ithin energy system transitions, the most feasible adaptation options support infrastructure resilience, reliable power systems and efficient water use for existing and new energy generation systems (very high confidence). Energy generation diversification, including renewable energy resources and the generation that can be decentralised depending on context (e.g., wind, solar, small scale hydroelectric) and demand-side management (e.g., storage, and energy efficiency improvements) can reduce vulnerabilities to climate change, especially in rural populations (high confidence).”
India’s unprecedented and mega commitments at COP26 to achieve 450 GW in renewable installed capacity 2050 to address climate change and achieve net zero targets. This has resulted in her ranking as the 10th best performed in top 20 global performers as per the Climate Performance Index (CCPI) 2022. Which is encouraging. However, the IPCC report cautions that some of these policies are disjointed and missing the detail necessary for achieving implementation and long term targets.
A massive shift to renewable energy requires enormous resources, and land is a crucial one. A study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) observes that India will need at least 50,000 to 75,000 square kilometres of land for solar and 15,000- 20,000 square kilometres of land for wind energy installations. The report observes such massive land-use needs have the potential for causing land-use conflicts even in poorly populated areas.
Renewable energy projects were exempted from mandatory environmental clearance as per the EIA Notification 2006 on the claim they are environmentally and socially benign. This decision of MoEF&CC was challenged at the National Green Tribunal by Environment Support Group in PIL. The Tribunal in its 2014 decision directed the ministry to revisit the exemption decision. But MoEF&CC has remained noncommittal. Instead, it has gone on to place solar and wind power generation under the ‘white category’, which means they are not polluting and don’t need to obtain ‘Consent to Operate’ from State Pollution Control Boards. This has created an comfortable docking for renewable energy projects without any environmental review.
Emerging reports of the impacts of utility-scale solar parks and wind energy projects indicates that renewable energy installations are on similar trajectory as coal powered energy projects are in displacing and dispossessing communities. People who lose their land and livelihoods to such projects are quite often structurally the most vulnerable and marginalised.
The legislation that was required to protect such small and marginal land holders, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land acquisition, rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013, remains largely on paper. There is an active effort on the part of several State Governments to not employ this progressive law in acquiring land, especially for uch mega projects. In fact, most State governments find ways to sidestep the LARR and instead resorted to leasing out land, especially for renewable projects. Several State governments also amended the state LARR processes to facilitate such developments and invite investments. In the process the opinions and needs of local impacted communities have been dispensed.
Even with India having installed only about 60-70 GW of renewable energy, the dangerous and irreversible implications of such hasty decisions are already being felt. India’s first solar park at Charanka in Gujarat has exposed how it has displaced community livelihoods and created a water crisis. Pavagada in Karnataka, Rewa in Madhya Pradesh, Mikir Bamuni in Assam and several other such mega solar parks are retelling how social and environmental impacts are serious. Yet MoEF&CC remains reticent, and is doing nothing at all to review prevailing exemptions from environmental review accorded to renewable energy projects.
In addition, many states have amended their revenue laws and amended land reform laws, to facilitate ease of transfer of cultivable and common lands for industrial and infrastructure development. In addition, solar and wind policies have been drafted to ensure investors secure land seamlessly, which includes digitisation of land records. The Digital India Land Records modernisation programme (DILRMP) is part of this process. Such a sequence of coordinated actions from the highest levels has resulted in automatic land, environment and local government approvals, and facilitation in setting up special purpose vehicles (SPVs), all to assist renewable energy developers.
Finance followed. At COP 21 in Paris, India pledged to derive 40 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. The country announced the ambitious target of developing 100 GW of solar energy in support of which the World Bank promised in 2017 over $1 billion. This enabling role allowed Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency Limited, a division of MNRE, to extend sub loans to select states to establish utility scale solar parks. A critical component of these sub loans was that State governments must support renewable energy developers with land and infrastructure provisioning.
In fact, in its report on Shared Infrastructure for Solar Parks project in 2015, as part of its Clean Technology Fund , World Bank appraised the financing of two solar projects in India. Based on the systematic operations risk rating tool (SORT) tool the report gives an overall ‘Moderate’ level of risk ranking to the projects and admits that implementation of such projects will result in adverse social impacts, loss of livelihoods, and also recognises gender equity and empowerment will be severely compromised. It also indicates access to water, forests, natural habitats and such other resources will become challenging. Despite such forewarning, the World Bank appears to have not taken precautions essential to avoid substantial social and environmental impacts of its financing such solar parks.
When such financing decisions are made by powerful institutions such as the World Bank, local impacted communities have no clue about what’s going to hit them. Current estimates suggest India will need Rs. 1.5-2 trillion every year till 2030 to ensure its renewable energy targets can be met. But there is simply no formal estimation of what social and environmental disruption this will cause.
With 100% FDI allowed in the renewable energy space, and with Parliamentary Standing Committee on Energy recommending ‘green banks’ are set up to invite mega renewable energy projects, it is plausible that length and breadth of India will be covered with solar panels. All this will take place through centralised intervention and the absolute lack of environmental impact assessments. Besides, the prevailing sidestepping of local government’s involvement in decision making is likely to persist. Also, the ongoing neglect of the need for people’s participation in determining land use planning of their region would be systematised. This is more than likely to drive out farming, pastoral and such other natural resource dependent communities out of their habitats and livelihoods support systems.
The lack of information dissemination about in such mega loans, is keeping the nation in the dark and forcing people into financial illiteracy. People are simply unable to fathom the enormous monetary and natural resources that are being invested into the renewables sector, and notice how their tax money goes into servicing debt. Such transitions are claimed to be ‘just’, when in fact they are directly compromising nutritional security, public health, education, employment, focus on needs of adolescent girls, etc. In addition, the material waste disposal of such renewables sectors remains unrecognised. This includes the importance of the environmental costs of disposal of solar photovoltaic sheets, fibreglass, resin, plastic and steel which is likely to create new toxic hotspots. And there is then the issue of how renewable energy projects are highly land intensive compared with the energy generated. The concealed environmental impacts are beginning to rear its head.
It is the right time to critically rethink and reimagine a world where energy systems do not destroy the resources necessary for life and livelihoods. Rooftop solar plants, decentralised and distributed energy systems, agro-pastoral photovoltaic farms, energy-efficient buildings, efficient appliances, solar street lighting and transportation using renewables will resolve much of the problems of emissions. Creatively, landfills, quarries and abandoned mine sites could be considered for mega solar parks. And, it makes sense to generate energy where it is needed instead of investing in long-distance transmission.
Reimagining, relearning and rewriting financing strategies is critical in achieving this transition, as is evident from Alternative Bank Switzerland (ABS) which underscores the importance of applying principles to investment instead of maximising profits. Political will, judicial enforcement, genuine public participation and transparent investing will help reimagine renewable energy for a truly just, humane and sustainable Earth to become a reality!
Bhargavi S.Rao works with CFA and is a Trustee at ESG