Commentary: How business should be respecting human rights in the transition to cleaner energy
19 Oct 2021
[H]ow can companies ensure respect for human rights in this transition to cleaner energy? [...]
Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), businesses have a responsibility to address human rights impacts. This includes their potential or actual impacts from exiting high-carbon activities and from entering into renewable energy projects and supporting the transition to cleaner energy. But companies focussing on renewables have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to effective human rights due diligence processes in the value chain, while other enterprises with renewables assets may only focus due diligence efforts on business areas perceived as high risk. It is important to recognise that while renewables are integral to achieving a low-carbon future for all, they can pose risks to people as well as benefits.
Human rights risks in renewable energy
We know that there are significant risks to people across the value chains of renewables. Not only are human rights impacts associated with key minerals needed to meet the demand for cleaner energy, but also with their smelting and refining, the manufacturing of components, transport, and acquisition of land for large-scale projects. Risks reported include:
- Allegations of forced labour in the manufacture of polysilicon for solar panels
- Key habitats harmed by green energy infrastructure
- Demand for Balsa wood for wind turbines linked to impacts on Indigenous peoples’ rights
- Poor working conditions in solar installation
- An increase in harmful e-waste from disposal of renewables technologies
- Attacks against human rights defenders linked to hydroelectric projects in Latin America
- Land grabbing for wind and solar farms
- Lithium extraction impacting communities’ access to clean drinking water
Shifting to action and bridging silos
Increased action is needed to ensure effective human rights due diligence is carried out when it comes to low-carbon strategies. Earlier this year, the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights held a practical business dialogue on responding to the climate crisis while respecting human rights. The dialogue demonstrated there is growing recognition from business and stakeholders of the need for a more holistic approach to risk management across environment and human rights.
Consideration of issues like renewables which are at the intersection of climate, environment and human rights demonstrates the need to get people talking across siloed business areas and teams. There is a real impetus to do this from emerging mandatory due diligence requirements, with the EU suggested draft law connecting the obligation to conduct both environmental and human rights due diligence...