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Renewable energy companies can protect local communities from harm if they source responsibly

29/11/19 - Annie Signorelli and Eniko Horvath, BHRRC

Companies should take action to ensure that human rights are respected as part of the transition to low-carbon economies, write Annie Signorelli and Eniko Horvath

The climate crisis disproportionately harms indigenous peoples, low-income communities, developing countries, and other marginalized groups. There’s now a growing risk that the solutions to climate change might do the same. 

Increased availability of and access to renewable energy is imperative for protecting the health of our planet and its people. But the rapid and necessary rise in demand and production of renewable energy means human rights protections must increase in equal measure to avoid harms to workers and communities. 

During the next two weeks, global leaders from government, civil society, and business will gather in Madrid at the United Nations Climate Change Conference known as COP25 to tackle the crisis of climate change. Companies and investors will play a central role in addressing this existential threat. 

Already 211 RE100 companies have committed to source 100% renewable energy by 2025, while the We Mean Business coalition is tracking more than 1,600 other climate-related commitments by more than 900 companies. 

 These are critical and commendable steps. But in order to ensure a successful transition to a low-carbon economy, they must be taken in tandem with equally bold measures for industry-wide human rights due diligence.  

Workers, indigenous peoples, and other affected communities around the world have for years been documenting allegations at renewable energy project sites and protesting abusive corporate practices through supply chains – often at great risk to their safety and livelihoods. A disproportionate number of these allegations concern the global south, namely Latin America and Southeast Asia.    

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre recently released a methodology to rank renewable energy companies on their human rights policies and practices. The methodology is the result of a series of global consultations with a wide range of stakeholders and includes a set of sector-specific indicators that are salient for renewable energy. It also makes use of the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark’s indicators on the core responsibilities for companies in any industry under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).   

Renewable energy companies, investors, and governments should act now to integrate corporate human rights due diligence in order to ensure the transition to a low-carbon economy addresses, rather than exacerbates, the inequalities already created by climate change.  

Here are four ways to get started:   

  1. Ensure any carbon market financing mechanism adopted in climate policy discussion has robust human rights safeguards.  Negotiators at COP25 are discussing the potential forms mechanisms financing climate mitigation and adaptation measures could take. As experience from the Clean Development Mechanism shows, it is key that any solution must include robust human rights safeguards in order to prevent funding climate actions that harm human rights.

    Companies and investors can play a role in speaking out in support of these safeguards as they would help level the playing field, reward leaders, and punish laggards that do not have appropriate policies and processes in place. 

  

2. Implement robust human rights due diligence in the renewable energy sector engaging closely with affected communities and workers. Since 2010, we have identified 152 allegations of human rights abuse related to renewable energy projects, implicating more than 100 companies. Allegations include killings, threats, and intimidation; land grabs; dangerous working conditions; and violations of indigenous peoples’ rights to land and livelihood. These allegations can stir reputational damage, legal battles, and financial penalties that can in turn result in project delays or even cancellations.

It is imperative that companies and their investors embed human rights due diligence into project plans from the outset and involve affected communities and workers, in order to avoid these consequences which can ultimately imperil the drive towards a low-carbon economy. Our recent guide for investors in renewable energy lays out practical steps investors can take to help tackle the climate crisis while respecting human rights in a just transition, including the key questions investors should be asking of current or future renewable energy holdings.

 

3. Push for human rights due diligence in supply chains. The World Bank estimates that rapidly rising demand for renewable energy technology – including wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles – will increase demand for at least six key minerals anywhere from 100% to more than 1,000% percent in the next 30 years. This will make the renewable energy boom a mining boom, and this rapid expansion of mining comes with significant human rights risks.

Our Transition Minerals Tracker found that 87% of the top companies producing these minerals have had  allegations against them since 2010, despite the fact that more than 60% of them have publicly-available human rights policies in place. Abuses range from environmental impacts that harm local communities, to interference in indigenous peoples’ rights, to corruption and tax avoidance.   

Companies and investors should ask their suppliers not just whether they have a human rights policy, but how it is implemented, and verify company claims through on-site visits, engagement with local communities and workers, human rights organization reporting, and credible multi-stakeholder initiatives like IRMA. They should also push their suppliers to adopt a comprehensive approach to human rights due diligence that isn’t specific to a single country or mineral, since human rights abuses occur in the mining sector all over the world.  

 

4. Protect activists who are fighting for a just transition. Human rights defenders are increasingly under attack for their activism in this sector. In 2018 the renewable energy industry and specifically hydropower became the third most dangerous sector for human rights activists.  We have recorded more than 50 cases of attacks on human rights defenders linked to their opposition to project development or objection to a company’s lack of engagement with communities. 

In addition, advocates who have worked to stop fossil fuel development have increasingly found themselves the subject of frivolous lawsuits (called “strategic lawsuits against public participation” – or SLAPPs – because their purpose is to bottle up activism by costing advocates time and money in responding to a lawsuit) by oil and mining companies. Lobbyists in the United States and elsewhere are pushing states to adopt restrictions on the right to protest.

Investors and end-user companies can take steps to help protect activists. These steps can include undertaking due diligence to see if the companies they invest in or source from have been involved in SLAPP suits, communicating that they expect investee companies and business partners will not bring lawsuits with the intention of silencing critics, and by raising the importance of anti-SLAPP legislation with government bodies.  

By taking these steps now, companies and investors can shape a renewable energy sector that is resilient and equitable, ensuring the mounting and crucial push for a low-carbon economy does not come at the expense of human rights.