We not only need to move away from fossils fuels, but also the myriad human rights issues that have long been associated with the industry. While renewables are an essential part of the transition, it’s crucial to remember that human rights issues can arise here too.

9 December 2021

As we reflect on world leaders’ pledges to reduce methane, phase out coal, or set net zero targets surrounding COP26, it is clear that it is not just the political, technological, and environmental aspects of transitioning that need attention, but that people are at the very heart of the challenge ahead. If we can’t tackle the social and human rights aspects of energy transition, we won’t achieve it at all. We need a just transition.

What exactly is a ‘just transition?’ Just transition is about how we ensure that the movement away from fossil fuels towards a green economy is equitable, inclusive, and respectful of human rights. It is about ensuring that benefits are shared widely and that those who stand to lose out economically or whose livelihoods will be adversely affected are supported.

This is not going to be easy. For example, in South Africa where 90 percent of energy comes from coal-fired power stations, and the coal sector employs 82,000 workers, a move away from fossil fuels, if not well managed, could cause significant social and economic impacts, including conflict.

One of the key players in the just transition is undoubtedly the renewable energy industry. IRENA (the International Renewable Energy Agency) recognizes that renewable energy and energy efficiency measures can potentially achieve 90 percent of required carbon reductions. Renewable energy is central to meeting global net zero targets and the Paris Agreement. Yet while many of us are excited at the prospect of more solar or wind energy, the story is not always this simple.

Quotation mark It is easy to perceive renewable energy as ‘inherently good’ or to assume that it is protected by a ‘green halo.’ However, like the myriad human rights issues that have long been associated with the fossil fuel industry, there are also instances where human rights have been adversely impacted in renewables industry activity. Quotation mark

The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) has been keeping track of allegations made against the renewable energy industry since 2010. The BHRRC has found that allegations have been made in every region and across all five sub-sectors of renewable energy (wind, solar, bioenergy, geothermal, and hydropower). The most common allegations include illegal land acquisitions, dangerous working conditions, intimidation, and harm to indigenous peoples.

Take solar energy, the fastest-growing renewable energy source. Ninety-five percent of solar modules rely on one primary material – solar-grade polysilicon. Polysilicon manufacturers in the Uyghur Region account for approximately 45 percent of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon supply – and the supply chain that produces it is reported to be rife with forced labor.  

The industry has been marred by other allegations of abuses of labor rights in the supply chain and of indigenous peoples’ rights. Accusations include including displacement, loss of livelihoods, and lack of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC).

A similar picture appears with wind energy. In October, Norway's Supreme Court stripped two wind farms of their operating licenses as the cultural and land use rights of indigenous Sami people were violated.

These examples illustrate that, despite its indisputably critical role going forward, there are human rights risks associated with renewable energy production that need to be identified and addressed by those causing or contributing to them.

So what can business do?

With COP26 behind us, and as governments and companies move forward in their discussions on implementing their energy transition pledges, one of the biggest challenges – and opportunities – will be to ensure respect of human rights is embedded in these commitments and the actions needed to deliver them. This can be ensured by conducting meaningful human rights due diligence as set out under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

There is growing evidence of the importance of undertaking such due diligence. For instance, the BHRRC found in its benchmarking that the lack of corporate human rights policies in renewable energy companies strongly correlates with allegations of abuse. And while companies are increasingly taking up human rights due diligence, BHHRC also states that “the industry has a long way to go to demonstrate its respect for the human rights of communities and workers in their operations and supply chains.”

Human rights due diligence entails developing policy commitments to respect human rights, identifying and acting upon adverse human rights impacts, including providing remedy, and extending human rights due diligence across value chains. Integration of human rights in the business also requires establishing clear roles and responsibilities, measurable goals, adequate resources, and accountability.

Quotation mark Conducting human rights due diligence will allow the renewable energy industry to address its human rights impacts as well as to comply with proposed and adopted legislation on mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence. Quotation mark

Over the past few years, we have seen a growing number of countries adopt human rights due diligence legislation that extends to value chains. This trend will continue to extend across geographies.

Another option for companies facing human rights challenges like those discussed here is participation in sector-wide dialogues or initiatives that seek to address some of the most severe human rights risks associated with the industry. Such forums are a good place for companies to explore how they can positively use their leverage in collaboration with others. Examples of these are Solar Power Europe, the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) for the solar sector, and Wind Europe. There is urgent need – and appetite – for solution-oriented discussions that take into account the legal, logistical, and even political challenges that the industry faces. 

Integrating human rights in the just transition will require meaningful dialogue between governments, companies, workers, and communities. The conversation is not only about costs and technology; it is mostly about people. Only this way can we truly ensure that the transition is just and leaves no one behind.