Renewable energy takes toll on human rights

By Joan Conrow

June 29, 2020

The quest to advance renewable energy has frequently come at the expense of human rights, according to a new assessment of the world’s biggest solar and wind companies.

Killings, threats, intimidation, land grabs, dangerous working conditions, poverty wages and harm to the lives and livelihoods of indigenous people comprise just some of the 197 allegations of human rights abuses related to renewable energy projects that the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has identified in the last 10 years.

In the first-ever comprehensive analysis of the human rights policies and practices of 16 of the world’s largest wind and solar companies, the Centre found that nearly half scored less than 10 out of 100 in their respect for human rights.

There were also major gaps on protecting land rights and indigenous people, said Phil Bloomer, the Centre’s executive director.

“This abuse not only threatens communities, it also risks project delays, increased costs and a loss of companies’ social license to operate,” Bloomer said. “This unnecessary abuse puts a fast transition to a net-zero carbon economy at risk.”

The allegations encompass all sectors of renewable energy development — wind, solar, bioenergy, geothermal and hydropower — and every region. Latin America accounts for 61 percent of the claims. Abuse of land rights was the most common allegation, the benchmark reported, “yet none of the 16 companies scored any points in this theme.”

The sampling of these companies only “represents a small fraction of global renewable energy producers but provides important insight into the policies and practices of some of the most important and influential companies working in the sector,” the report notes.

Iberdrola, Acciona, Orsted and Enel had the highest scores, while NYSE companies Jinko Solar, Blackrock, NextEra and the Southern Company scored poorly, as did Power Construction Corp. of China and China General Nuclear Power Corp.

Though most of the companies fell short, “there is a small but important leadership group in this benchmark; they deserve reward from investors and governments, and will attract the best talent to help them make further progress,” commented Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and adjunct professor for climate justice at Trinity College in Dublin, in her foreward to the report. “Their leadership should also spur their peers.”

The report notes that “the transition to a net-zero carbon economy is a human rights imperative for all people, but cannot come at the expense of the most vulnerable among us. It is imperative that the sector as a whole urgently adopt policies and practices to prevent, mitigate and remediate the human rights harms emerging from the sector, and take steps now to ensure that the low-carbon transition is both fast and fair.”

Though the most salient human rights risks associated with renewables are also found in the mining and agribusiness industries, the report notes, “the renewable energy sector appears to be lagging behind some of those industries in adopting policies and practices to prevent, mitigate and remediate potential human rights harms.”

The report includes a number of recommendations for the sector, including adopting and implementing policies that align with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other international standards; regularly consulting with indigenous groups; identifying and correcting abuses in their supply chains, and adopting policies to protect those who are defending human and environmental rights in areas where the companies operate.

The report also urges investors, governments and international financial institutions to ensure that companies have clear policies that respect human rights and indigenous land rights, among other measures, and that workers and communities have access to both non-judicial and legal remedies when renewable projects cause harm.

Mark Lynas, climate expert and associate fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science, commented: “If we are to make it to net zero in time to save the climate, we are going to need a massive scale-up of renewable and other clean energy technologies. Wind and solar are diffuse energy sources that take up a lot of land. If this huge expansion of renewable energy is not to take place at the expense of indigenous people and others, then these companies need to get their houses in order — quickly.”

Image: Tom Walsh