The Supreme Court’s decision recognising the right of Indian citizens to be free from the adverse effects of climate change is being lauded as a massive victory for the climate justice movement. But the judgement needs to be viewed from the lens of cautious optimism.

While the court enshrined this new right within the scope of the fundamental right to life and the right to equality, it does not define the contours of what this right entails. It also does not specify what factors will be taken into consideration as Indian courts are increasingly called upon to balance competing considerations.

As a result, even though the Supreme Court anticipates more climate change litigation in the future, it does not provide sufficient guidance for how such cases are to be adjudicated by lower courts.

In this case, the Supreme Court was tasked with striking a delicate balance between the conservation of biodiversity (the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard) and the need for India to transition to renewable forms of energy in order to meet its international obligations.

Human rights and climate change

In its judgment in the case, MK Ranjitsinh vs Union of India, the Supreme Court highlighted the growing intersection between climate change and human rights and underscored the need for states to address climate impacts through the lens of rights. Cases from other jurisdictions referred to in this judgment show us how courts around the world are now tasked with adjudicating cases falling at this intersection.

In fact, on April 9, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of a group of elderly Swiss women who had argued that their country’s government had violated their human right to a private and family life by failing to put in place sufficient policies to tackle climate change.

Thus, states are increasingly being held responsible for their failure to implement laws and policies that could protect their citizens from the adverse impacts of climate change. The MK Ranjitsinh judgement also recognised the Indian state’s duty of care towards its citizens to prevent harm and to ensure overall well-being.

It emphasised that it is imperative for India to uphold its obligations under international law, including its responsibility to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to climate impacts, and protect the fundamental rights of all individuals to live in a healthy and sustainable environment.

Climate justice litigation

This case is just one instance of the kind of litigation that is going to reach the doorstep of Indian courts in the coming years as climate change begins to disrupt lives and livelihoods.

For example, a 2024 report by the Centre for Science and Environment found that India recorded extreme weather events on 318 of the 365 days in 2023, with all states and Union territories experiencing such events on at least one day.

The time is not far when communities directly impacted by such events (some of which may be attributable to climate change) might approach courts to seek compensation or to ask the court to direct the government to put in place measures to protect them from the deleterious impacts of climate change.

Another possible area which could witness greater litigation is intensive animal agriculture. Livestock production accounts for anywhere between 11.1% to 19.6% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the 20th Livestock Census, at 536.76 million, India has the largest population of livestock in the world. As India witnesses increasing intensification of animal agriculture, a case can be made against such intensification on the ground that animal agriculture is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and thereby global warming.

Other countries are already examining the scope for such litigation. In the United States, for instance, the Climate Change and Animal Agriculture Litigation Initiative is a project at Yale Law School that focuses on exploring the potential for litigation to help address the climate harms of animal agriculture.

The ultimate outcome of the MK Ranjitsinh case was that the Supreme Court constituted an Expert Committee to assess the feasibility of laying power lines in areas inhabited by the Great Indian Bustard instead of deciding the issue itself. This outcome shows that the judiciary might not always be best positioned to adjudicate technical issues that require determination by domain experts.

While the Supreme Court’s recognition of the right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change deserves to be appreciated, how Indian courts deal with subsequent climate justice cases will be the true test of whether the MK Ranjitsinh judgment is truly groundbreaking.

Apoorva is the Founder of Animal Law & Policy Network, an independent think tank.