Renewable Energy Companies Can Help Protect Human Rights

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The climate crisis disproportionately harms developing countries, low-income communities, indigenous peoples, and other marginalised groups. There is now a growing threat that the climate change solutions could do the same.

The increased availability and access to renewable energy sources are essential for safeguarding the health of people and the planet. The necessary and required rise in demand for renewable energy production necessitates human rights protections increasing in equal measures to avert problems for workers and local communities. 

Global leaders from civil society, government and business gather at the United Nations Climate Change Conference every year, known as COP25. They have the aim of tackling the climate change crisis.

It is understood that companies and investors play a central role in tackling this existential threat. There are already 300 RE100 member companies that have committed to source 100% of their power from renewable energy companies by 2025. There is also the We Mean Business Coalition which is tracking over 1,600 other climate-related commitments by more than 900 companies.

These are all critical and commendable steps made by organisations. Still, to ensure a successful transition to a low-carbon economy, these steps must be taken in tandem with equally important actions for industry-wide human rights due diligence.

Around the world, workers, indigenous peoples and other affected communities have been documenting allegations at renewable energy project sites for years. They have been opposing abusive corporate practices through supply chains, often at risk to their own safety and livelihoods. A disproportionate number of these allegations are concerned with the global south – specifically Southeast Asia and Latin America.

In 2002, The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre published a methodology to rank renewable energy companies on their human rights practices and policies. The methodology is the outcome of a series of global consultations with an array of stakeholders – including a set of sector-specific indicators that are prominent to the renewable energy sector. It also encompasses the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark's indicators on the primary responsibilities for companies part of any industry under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).   

Governments, investors and renewable energy companies should take action now to incorporate corporate human rights due diligence – this will ensure the transition to a low-carbon economy addresses, rather than potentially exacerbating, the inequalities already produced by climate change.  

Here are four ways to get this vital aspect of the low-carbon journey underway:   

  1. Make sure any carbon market financing adopted into the climate policy discussion has robust human rights precautions. The negotiators at COP25 continue to discuss the potential forms of financing mechanisms that climate mitigation and adaptation measures could adopt. Past experience from the Clean Development Mechanism demonstrates that any solution must comprise robust human rights safeguards to prevent funding climate actions that may harm human rights.

Investors and companies can play a big part by speaking out in support of these safeguards. This will help level the playing field, reward leaders, and punish laggards that do not have proper processes and policies in place. 

  1. Implement strict human rights due diligence in the renewable energy sector and engage closely with all affected communities and workers. Since 2010, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has sadly identified over 152 allegations of human rights abuse related to renewable energy projects – implicating over 100 companies. These allegations include:
  • Intimidation, threats and even killings;
  • Land grabs;
  • Dangerous working conditions;
  • Violations of indigenous peoples' rights to livelihood and land.

These allegations can damage precious reputations, create complex legal battles, and bring about financial penalties that can sequentially result in renewable project delays and even cancellations.

Companies and their investors must embed human rights due diligence into all their project plans. This must be introduced from the outset and include affected communities and workers as this will help avoid the outcome, which can ultimately jeopardise the push towards a low-carbon economy.

  1. There is a need to push human rights due diligence in supply chains. The World Bank estimates that the rapidly rising necessity for renewable energy technology (including solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles) will increase demand for at least six essential minerals. This could be anywhere from 100% to 1,000% in the next 30 years. This will result in the renewable energy boom also a mining boom – and this rapid increase in mining comes with significant threats to human rights.

It has been reported that since 2010, 87% of the leading companies producing these minerals have had allegations against them. This is regardless of the fact that over 60% of them supposedly have publicly available human rights policies in place. The alleged abuse range from:

  • Environmental impacts that harm local communities;
  • Interference in indigenous peoples' rights;
  • Corruption and tax avoidance.

Companies and investors have a responsibility to ascertain that their suppliers have a human rights policy in place and how it is implemented. They should also verify company claims through on-site visits, engagement with local communities and workers, human rights organisation reporting, and credible multi-stakeholder initiatives (such as IRMA). Suppliers should also be under pressure to implement a comprehensive approach to human rights due diligence that doesn't apply to a single country or mineral – as human rights abuses arise in the mining sector on a global scale.

  1. The activists that are fighting for a just transition need to be protected. Sadly, human rights defenders are increasingly attacked for their activism in the energy sector. In 2018, the renewable energy industry (particularly hydropower) became the third most dangerous sector for human rights activists. It has been reported that over 50 cases of attacks on human rights defenders are linked to their opposition to project development or protest to a company's lack of engagement with local communities. 

Furthermore, advocates trying to stop fossil fuel development are increasingly finding themselves the focus of frivolous lawsuits started by oil and mining companies. These lawsuits are identified as "strategic lawsuits against public participation" (SLAPPs). Their purpose is to suppress activism by costing campaigners money and time in responding to the lawsuit.

There are ways investors and companies can help protect these courageous activists. These measures include:

  • Completing due diligence to check if the companies they invest in or source from have been or are currently involved in any SLAPP suits.
  • Openly communicating that they expect investee companies and business partners not to bring lawsuits with the intention of silencing critics.
  • Raising awareness of the importance of anti-SLAPP legislation with government bodies.

Closing Thoughts 

There are many practical steps investors can follow to help fight the climate crisis while respecting human rights. By taking these vital steps, investors and companies can help shape the renewable energy sector's future to be resilient and equitable – while safeguarding the mounting and crucial push for a low-carbon economy that does not come at the expense of human rights.