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If our green energy plans will threaten our biodiversity, they’re not ‘green’

An article recently published in Bloomberg took a vicious swipe at the great Indian bustard, a protected species in India. Through an insensitive diatribe, the article suggested that the bird’s habitat in Rajasthan and its special status are increasing mitigation costs for power companies looking to make a quick buck with solar panels in the Thar.

The article passes off the bustard’s habitats as ‘wastelands’ that we would all be foolish to not exploit for solar or wind power. The author’s narrative ultimately blames the bird itself for not making use of its surroundings properly – for not adjusting to the changing landscape, for its ugly gait, for its inability to see too well, even that it is so big.

The Great Indian bustard is a flagship species of the Thar desert. It is a Schedule I species under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, meaning it enjoys the highest level of protection Indian law offers. In a recent judgement, the Supreme Court said power lines in the great Indian bustard’s habitat are to be moved underground, so that bustards aren’t caught and decapitated mid-flight – a major cause of death.

Grasslands and savannahs are the Great Indian bustards’ only homes. Savannahs have grasses about 50-70 cm tall, with a few interspersed trees that block its flight.

The bird has traded short-distance vision to be able to see well over longer distances because it needs to survive in the brightly lit semi-arid grasslands, scan it for predators, with little shade for succour. And when in the air, the bird needs to look out for food as well. From the bird’s point of view, its eyesight is more useful than perfect near-vision – in natural conditions, of course. This is an evolutionary marvel of nature, not a characteristic to be denigrated.

Finally, if power companies see a problem with taking mitigation measures to conserve the bird’s habitat, they’re missing the ‘green’ in ‘green energy’. We need to replace conventional fuels with more sustainable alternatives – and they no doubt include solar and wind energy. But if we’re going to erect panels and turbines and string them together in ways that pose serious threats to the survival of a species of birds, and trigger cascading changes in its ecosystem, the purpose of ‘green energy’ will become profiteering, not sustainability. How would this be different from the carbon-intensive energy we already use?

A comment by Asad Rahmani, former director of the Bombay Natural History Society, in a 1987 paper comes to mind: “The bird is totally protected, but not its home.”

Priyamvada Bagaria is an ecology researcher who has been associated with the Wildlife Institute of India, where she worked with great Indian bustards.