Environmental Law Program

World Conference on Environment 2017, New Delhi, India – Guest Contributor: Christina Lizzi (ELP Student)

This Spring 2017 semester, ELP student Christina Lizzi is having the amazing opportunity to study abroad at the O.P. Jindal Global Law School and intern at the India National Green Tribunal.  She shares her experience thus far with us.

Denise Antolini (Associate Dean of WSRSL), Ms. Sindhu Krishna Kumar (Deputy Registrar cum PPS to Hon’ble Chairperson, Principal Bench of National Green Tribunal), Honorable Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Sabrina S. McKenna, and Christina Lizzi (WSRSL Student)

On March 25 – 26, 2017, representatives from around the world, including sitting justices, judges, law professors, scientists, and students, gathered in New Delhi, India for the World Conference on the Environment, hosted by India’s National Green Tribunal, in partnership with the Asian Development Bank, the UN Environment Program, and multiple Indian agencies. Hawai‘i’s own Supreme Court Justices Michael D. Wilson and Sabrina S. McKenna, and WSRSL Associate Dean Denise Antolini were among the foreign delegates. I also had the privilege to attend the conference, and spend a few days with familiar faces.

This was my first conference in India, and I was impressed by the presentation. Like Chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar’s exacting orders and judgments, every detail of the conference was closely attended to. Large welcome signs made out of marigolds stood outside the Vigyan Bhawan where the conference was held and inside, an equally impressive number of flowers decorated the halls. Protocol was emphasized and carefully rehearsed. A student was assigned to each delegate to answer questions and provide directions. True to Indian custom, each presenter was felicitated with a weighty memento of thanks. As part of my internship at the NGT, I assisted with preparation of one of the mementos – a large coffee table book commemorating the work and history of the NGT to date.

Sign made of marigolds welcoming delegates to the World Conference on Environment

Much more important than the decorum, however, was the content of the conference and the interaction of the delegates. World cooperation on environmental issues is critical to meet the challenges of a changing climate that threatens the very survival of the human species, not to mention countless others. As the Chief Justice of India, the Honorable Mr. Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar, reminded the audience in his inaugural remarks: “Environment is not a matter of competition. It is not ‘we and they.’ Environment is humanity at large.” The aim of the conference was to bring leaders in various fields together to strengthen global collaboration and knowledge sharing on such vital problems, with an emphasis on the judiciary and environmental rule of law.

The conference program covered topics ranging from climate change, to biodiversity, to air and water pollution. A webcast of the Inaugural and Valedictory session, as well as several of the technical sessions is available here. Honorable Justice Sabrina S. McKenna spoke on a panel about municipal solid waste (MSW), a major issue confronting Hawai‘i and the developing world alike. In India, over 100,000 metric tons of waste are produced daily. In many places, litter lines the streets, and large garbage dumps are sprinkled throughout the city; polluting water as chemicals leach into the soil and are carried into the stream, and emitting toxic fumes as the mounds catch fire daily. Justice McKenna spoke about ways that Hawai‘i is addressing MSW, including the H-Power waste to energy conversion plant.

Polluted waterway I walk past on my way home in Saket, Delhi

Garbage truck on the highway

Trash along a roadway

Large garbage heap in Delhi. Hawks circle around it. The dots on top of the hill are people picking through the trash, as well as cattle. The heap is continuously burning.

Dean A presenting at the World Conference on the Environment 2017.

Associate Dean Denise Antolini was a panelist for the Water Pollution technical session. She spoke specifically about plastics and marine pollution, and the damage it is causing not only to the Hawaiian Islands, but worldwide. Her comments – and images of Hawai‘i – clearly resonated with the audience. The National Green Tribunal itself has taken steps to curb plastic pollution in India. Although not fully enforced, plastic bags are banned in the National Capital Region of Delhi, and as of January 1, 2017 so are all disposable plastics.

A notice in Connaught Place Starbucks, Delhi announcing their compliance with the NGT order regarding disposable plastics. [Note: it is sitting next to disposable plastic stir sticks, indicating just how challenging enforcement of the order is.]

Hawai‘i Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Wilson presenting at the World Conference on the Environment 2017.

Justice Michael D. Wilson participated in the Climate Change panel, focusing on the role of law to promote sustainable “pono” development models and the imperative for the world community to stay below the 3.6˚ F threshold of global warming. As he did just days before in a presentation at Jindal Global Law School, he reminded the audience that with inspired leadership and action, there is hope that we can stay below that target. India itself is taking measures to address climate change, particularly in the energy sector. It has committed to increasing renewable energy to 100 gigawatts by the year 2020. India has also put a tax on coal, increasing its cost and discouraging its use.

The moves to reduce emissions in India’s energy sector, however, could go further. As Dr. Armin Rosencranz, an environmental expert and a Professor at JGLS, explained in a session on the 2015 Paris Agreement, the solar energy target does not account for all factors such as darkness and wind, which reduces the actual production capacity to about 19 gigawatts per 100 gigawattts of production capacity. He also pointed out that India does not have any plan on reducing coal consumption in the near future, even as it incorporates more renewables into its energy mix. Additionally, as I have been learning in my Natural Resources Class, India is so heavily reliant on coal that it is importing coal into the country to fuel development.

The last panel discussion of the conference piqued my interest most: “Environmental Pollution: Role of Courts and Tribunals with Special Reference to the National Green Tribunal.” It was an interactive session with multiple judges from courts around the world, including justices from Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, United Kingdom, Brazil, Australia, Thailand, China, Malaysia, and, of course, India. A range of courts was represented from the Ang Thong Provincial Court of Thailand, to the Supreme Court of Brazil (with Justice Antonio Benjamin Skyping in at 3:00am his local time).

Panelists entertained questions from the audience on a wide range of topics, including the disappearing Majuli River Island, located in State of Assam, India. Majuli is the world’s largest river island, but it is rapidly disappearing. Each year, monsoon rains flood the banks of the Brahmaputra river in which the island is located. Since 1917, the island has lost half of its land mass to erosion. An audience member asked the panelists whether this situation should be left to the status quo, or if something could be done about it. [On a side note – one man is doing something about it. Since 1979, Jadav Payeng has been planting trees. He has single-handedly planted over 550 hectares of forest. As evidence of his success, native species – including tigers, elephants, and vultures – are returning to the area. I hope to visit Majuli and meet Jadav this June. You can watch a short documentary on him here. For those of you who have gone on Dean A’s field trip to Hakalau, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Jadav is India’s Baron.]

The panelists offered a range of answers, but all focused on the determination that the status quo is unacceptable. Honorable Mr. Justice Brian Preston, Chief Judge of the Land and Environment Court of New South Wales, Australia, noted the recent New Zealand declared the Whanganui (known as Te Awa Tupua by the Maori) a juristic person. Just weeks later, the High Court of the state of Uttarakhand in India declared the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers to be juristic persons, based on a law that allows sacred objects – such as temples – to be considered juristic persons due to their importance to the faith of society. The same state then went much further to declare “by invoking our parens patriae jurisdiction, declare glaciers, including Gangotri and Yamunotri; rivers, streams, rivulets, lakes, air, meadows, dales, jungles, forests wetlands, grasslands, springs and waterfalls, legal entity/ legal person/ juristic person/ juridical person/ moral person/ artificial person having the status of a legal person, with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person, in order to preserve and conserve them. They are also accorded the rights akin to fundamental rights/legal rights. How these orders are implemented and whether they are appealed to the Supreme Court of India is yet to be seen.

Concluding remarks from Honorable Mr. Justice Swatanter Kumar, Chairperson of the National Green Tribunal

The Conference concluded with a valedictory session in which Honorable Mr. Justice Swatanter Kumar, Chairperson of the NGT, recapitulated the events of the conference and provided concluding remarks. He spoke about a recent decision by the NGT banning crop burning in several states and how the decision was made using a consultative adjudicatory process. The final orders were tailored to ensure that farmers were not overburdened, including terracing fines based on the land owned by the farmer and requirement for the government to purchase crop residue from small farmers, while fining larger land holders. The Chairperson explained: “It is not a very simple thing to deal with the environment. In my humble opinion, it is a very complex thing. You have to take care that you don’t stop development, you don’t stop livelihood, you don’t stop other activity for the progress of the society or humanity, but at the same time, you protect environment.” His remarks encapsulated the greatest challenge before the NGT and other environmental courts worldwide: balancing environmental protection with economic development. The World Environment Conference was an important opportunity for members of the world community to come together and exchange ideas on how that balance can be achieved.