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23 Apr 2024

Joan Carling, Executive Director, Indigenous People’s Rights International,
Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

The case for a people-centred just energy transition

The International Energy Agency (IEA) meets this week, on 26 April 2024, to discuss People-Centred Just Energy Transitions. This could not be more timely: urgent climate action is imperative. But a global energy transition that is fast without being fair to Indigenous Peoples, workers and other communities risks falling flat – hollowing out public support and adding fuel to growing resistance to the idea of a transition where society’s working people and most marginalised bear the costs of the shift.

Last weekend, 87 Indigenous Peoples from 35 countries gathered in New York to develop a different vision where “Indigenous Peoples must be treated as subjects of rights, and equal partners with dignity”.

“Through mutually agreed, collaborative efforts and shared resources, Indigenous Peoples’ renewable energy solutions mitigate climate change and foster economic empowerment and social cohesion, paving the way for a brighter and more sustainable future for all.”

There is an enormous amount to learn from this approach, which offers a pathway to a people-centred energy transition that is fast precisely because it is fair.

The scale and scope of the transition is breathtaking. We have a massive energy system overhaul ahead of us as our homes, offices, transportation and the products we consume decarbonise to ensure we meet climate goals. The IEA estimates the extraction of transition minerals needs to increase six-fold by 2040 for the world to reach net-zero emissions, while renewables-based electricity generation must triple by 2030. Fifty percent of the minerals required to power this transition are located on Indigenous Peoples’ lands, and wind and solar projects will also require vast tracts of those territories.

But this urgency must not be read as a license to trample rights on the way to a new energy future. That approach is already self-defeating. In fact, building trust and respect for the rights of workers and communities at the outset will reduce conflict, accelerate implementation and ensure shared prosperity from clean energy transitions. For Indigenous Peoples on the frontline of much of the clean energy expansion, this will start with securing consent to host projects on or near their land, by agreeing to avoid abuse and pollution, and to share the prosperity generated.

Companies and investors adopting this enlightened approach can avoid costly and ever-growing protests, blockades and legal challenges against renewable energy projects – which we have already seen happening across the globe, from Kenya to Norway, Peru and the USA. Stalled or cancelled projects do not help us meet our climate goals.

There’s no time to waste. Transition mineral mining continues to be riddled with human rights and environmental harms, with our Transition Minerals Tracker recording over 510 allegations of human rights abuses from top mineral producers over the last 12 years. Meanwhile, our 2023 Renewable Energy & Human Rights Benchmark indicated clean energy sectors are also falling short in critical ways: only two out of 28 solar and wind companies have policies in place to respect Indigenous Peoples’ rights. The vast majority of companies don’t have a clear commitment to respect land rights either – despite renewable energy installations requiring about 10 times as much land as power generated by coal or natural gas. Operations which centre both people and the planet are not only possible, but an increasing portfolio of better examples shows they can also be fair and profitable.

At minimum this centres on three core principles:

  • Commitment to shared prosperity models: Indigenous Peoples are leading the way in showcasing groundbreaking and innovative models for meaningful benefit sharing, including co-ownership and full community ownership of renewable energy assets.
  • Implementation of human rights and social protections: Decisive action by companies to identify and eliminate human rights and environmental abuse upstream helps avoid lawsuits, delays and other costs.
  • Fair negotiations with communities and workers without fear or intimidation: Indigenous leaders have reaffirmed their invitation to the energy sector, governments and investors to view true respect for their right to free, prior and informed consent as a tool for partnership – not an obstacle to be overcome. Equally, the declaration demands an end to the “increasing trend of criminalisation and attacks against Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders (IPHRDs), who speak out against the impositions of mining and energy projects that violate our rights.

The time is ripe for responsive and accountable governments to consider new and bold ways to level the playing field in the energy sector. This could be done by rewarding the most progressive companies that introduce new, innovative business models to better share benefits with Indigenous Peoples, workers and other communities, including through co-ownership and co-equity models. Green industrial policy initiatives, including the IRA, the EU Green Deal, the new supply chain law (CSDDD), and the updated OECD Guidelines are already beginning to integrate pieces of the just transition into their frameworks. However, more decisive action is needed to ensure Indigenous Peoples, workers and other communities are not left behind.

The IEA can help accelerate these efforts globally by recognising the centrality of human rights in the energy transition. As leaders gather in Paris this week, we urge them to reflect on how their governments and businesses can uphold human rights and shared prosperity in renewable energy value chains as part of people-centred just energy transition.

By Joan Carling, Executive Director, Indigenous Peoples Rights International; and Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre