“The land needed for solar parks may compete with other productive activities — agriculture and related livelihoods, with the potential for impacts on food security” 
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At a recent speech, the United Nations Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell said the “next two years are essential in saving our planet.” Record-breaking heat, shortage of water, and other environmental issues are regular headlines in the context of the need to achieve development, increase employment, and reduce poverty and inequality, among others. Yet, the linkages between the pathways of development, sustainability, and climate change mitigation are far from well-understood. Our current models of development drive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, are unsustainable, and inequitable. Although India aims to achieve Net Zero GHG emissions by 2070, mainly led by a massive transition to large-scale renewable energy, the implications of such a transition on developmental or sustainability outcomes are unclear at the local and national levels.

Examining solar parks

Let us take the example of large-scale solar parks — a key pillar of India’s mitigation strategy. We have 214 sq. km of land under solar parks, but some studies estimate that we may need 50,000-75,000 sq. km, which is about half the size of Tamil Nadu, to achieve our Net Zero targets.

At the local level, farmers in villages near India’s two largest solar parks – in Bhadla in Rajasthan and Pavagada in Karnataka – report different experiences. In Bhadla, farmers have lost sacred common lands called Orans and pastoralists are faced with shrinking grazing lands, forcing some to sell their livestock at throwaway prices. Such losses have led to protests demanding recognition of common land under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. On the other hand, many farmers in Pavagada were content with the steady annual income they received by leasing out land for solar parks. This land was drought-stricken and did not yield significant agricultural income. All the same, water security issues and economic disparity between large and small landowners are challenges for the region.

At a more regional or national scale, solar parks may compete for essential natural resources. Solar panels require large amounts of water for their regular cleaning. Yet, our current national-level estimates for the land available for solar parks do not account for the availability of nearby water sources. Similarly, the land needed for solar parks may compete with other productive activities — agriculture and related livelihoods, with the potential for impacts on food security. Impacts on biodiversity loss with the construction of large-scale solar parks are also location-specific, and under-researched. For instance, open natural systems such as deserts provide essential ecosystem services that, if disturbed, would cause ecological damage and even contribute to climate change. Crucially, all of these resource requirements and impacts on livelihoods and biodiversity are subject to uncertainty regarding feasibility and economic viability of other emerging low carbon technologies and the changing climate itself.

Different approaches

Large-scale renewable energy development can avoid reproducing the injustices of past large-scale infrastructure projects, while being sensitive to developmental objectives. Experimenting with ownership models is one approach. The parks need not necessarily be owned by the state or private companies. Community initiatives could help generate revenues for the communities, further promoting small businesses and upskilling, improving incomes, stimulating local economies, and improving energy access.

Solar and wind park development is exempted from Environmental and Social Impact Assessment. The legal and regulatory architecture must be revised and strengthened to limit adverse social and environmental consequences. In terms of impacts on small and medium landowners where private land is being used, there is no mechanism to monitor if a fair price is paid to those leasing their land. Involving local governance units in the planning and siting processes can provide an opportunity to align local developmental objectives with solar park development.

Wasteland classification needs a significant overhaul. Recognition of commons under the FRA would help improve environmental and equity outcomes by granting land ownership to communities dependent on commons. If such land is to be leased or acquired for solar parks, solar park development corporations will have to engage with local governance units such as the Gram Sabha to initiate the project.

Encouraging research and experimenting with ‘agrivoltaics’ is another way to think about sustainably developing renewable energy. Agrivoltaics pair solar with agriculture, creating energy and providing space for crops, grazing, and native habitats under and between panels. Thus, farmers can grow crops while also being ‘prosumers’ — producers and consumers — of energy.

Many of these challenges and opportunities relate to solar in particular, but similar issues abound with other mitigation technologies. Wind energy, for instance, has adverse consequences on bird ecosystems. Large-scale renewable energy projects could have positive employment outcomes at the district level, but they lead to massive employment shifts between sectors at the national level. Adequate skilling and training programmes targeting the unskilled and poorer populations are essential to protect them.

Seize the opportunity

We are at the cusp of a second green revolution, this time involving energy. We have an opportunity to anticipate the unintended consequences of this revolution, and align our technological, economic, and institutional structures to maximise synergies between sustainability, climate change mitigation, and development related outcomes.

Sukanya Khar is researcher at the School of Public Policy at IIT Delhi; Kaveri Iychettira is researcher at the School of Public Policy at IIT Delhi

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