Putting human rights at the centre of the renewable energy sector

A fast transition to a low carbon economy is not just about reducing the impacts of climate change—it is also a human rights imperative. Transitioning to renewable energy sources will play a critical role in slowing climate change by reducing emissions and decreasing pollution, all of which affect displacement as well as human rights to health, housing, food, and water .

At the same time, this transition comes with its own human rights impacts: it is already linked to abuses of the rights of indigenous peoples, access to land and water, and the safety of human rights defenders. Labour rights are also at risk as we move away from traditional fossil fuels, affecting the jobs and livelihoods of workers in these industries.

Flickr/Land Rover Our Planet/(CC BY-ND 2.0)

A laborer is seen working at a deisel powered crusher infont of a wind turbine.

Since 2010, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has approached companies in the renewable energy sector 94 times to request responses to allegations of human rights abuses made by local and international NGOs. Wind and hydropower projects from Mexico to Kenya have allegedly been linked to abuses related to land rights, livelihoods, rights of indigenous peoples, and intimidation and violence against communities opposing these projects.

According to our database, which assembles attacks on defenders focusing on corporate accountability from 2015 onwards, community leaders, most of whom are indigenous, are the group of defenders most at risk. Indigenous defenders are mostly affected by mining and extractives, followed by agribusiness, however attacks associated with renewables projects are on the rise. The death of indigenous activist Berta Cáceres, killed for her work opposing the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in Honduras, is a stark reminder of the severe risks that local communities face for standing up for their rights. So far in 2017, Global Witness and the Guardian have documented eight killings associated with water and dam projects. Hydropower projects have also been critiqued for their carbon footprint, calling into question whether some of these projects should be labelled as renewable energy in the first place.

The wind power sector also faces allegations of human rights abuses. One example comes from the Isthmus of Tehauntepec in Oaxaca, Mexico, where indigenous women’s rights defender Bettina Cruz has been arrested and subjected to violence and death threats for her opposition to wind farms. Local communities allege that these farms were built without the free, prior and informed consent of affected residents. These residents are now experiencing harm to their livelihoods and food security following the loss of agricultural land and pollution of fishing waters. Cruz continues to face ongoing attacks and intimidation for her defense of land and indigenous rights against these projects.

As investment in renewable energy increases and the world makes progress toward a low-carbon future, rights advocates have a unique opportunity to put human rights at the centre of an industry in its infancy. Indeed, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s outreach to 50 wind and hydropower companies around the world revealed that renewable energy firms do not yet have a strong approach to manage these risks. Only five out of these 50 companies have public commitments to respect the international standard of free, prior and informed consent for indigenous peoples. And even with these commitments in place, three out of these five companies are facing allegations that call their respect for the implementation of these commitments into question.

"Over 50% of the allegations we have tracked related to operations in Central and South America, followed by 28% in Asia."

Over 50% of the allegations we have tracked related to operations in Central and South America, followed by 28% in Asia. Among these allegations, the hydropower sector faces the greatest number, but those against wind power projects are increasing, with all having occurred after 2012. Half of the wind energy companies we reached out to do not yet have a commitment to consult with local communities.

Instead of only pressuring companies after human rights abuses take place, the global human rights and environmental communities, along with businesses and governments, have an opportunity to work together proactively to prevent future abuses. Here are a few ways we can help:

  • Call for affected community members’ and workers’ voices to be at the centre of government and company policies supporting renewable energy. All too often the people affected most by renewable energy projects are left out of decision-making. The human rights community can help by calling for just transition plans to be developed with workers in the fossil fuel industry, as well as transparent auction processes for renewable energy projects in developing countries. On the business side, activists must call on companies to work with communities and workers to develop rigorous due diligence processes and grievance mechanisms. Including the voices of affected people from the outset will result in more sustainable and rights-respecting projects. In addition, it’s important to remind businesses that human rights are not only a negative duty to refrain from violating the rights of others—they are also a positive obligation to support a safe and enabling environment for defenders”, as emphasized in the recent report by Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders.

  • Ensure that respect for human rights in the renewable energy sector is part of our climate change advocacy. A human rights approach to addressing climate change includes both transitioning to renewable energy quickly and paying attention to how this is done. Environmental and human rights groups can bring their different skills and expertise to collectively push for the renenewable energy sector to be rights-respecting and make sure that this issue is not left out of actions and policies to address climate change.

  • Press the renewable energy sector to put human rights at the core of its practice. Rights advocates can engage with companies directly to help them adopt and disclose human rights policies and due diligence practices in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights, conduct human rights impact assessments for every project, and ensure that their human rights policies and commitments are actually implemented. Some companies, including Statkraft and Vestas, have already started to integrate human rights into their due diligence processes—now is the time for the rest to follow. Critical issues for renewable energy projects include conducting community consultations before the start of a project and respecting the right to free, prior and informed consent, respecting land rights, ensuring ongoing access to clean water for local communities and providing fair compensation for loss of livelihoods or land.

  • Advocate for the adoption and implementation of rigorous human rights safeguards for projects financed by international financial institutions and donors. There is tremendous momentum from donor governments and international financial institutions to support the transition to renewable energy, including in the context of expanding access to electricity. These efforts, such as Sustainable Energy for All, the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative, and Power Africa, should ensure that projects they support are carefully vetted for potential human rights impacts and that companies receiving support are required to adopt best practices in protecting human rights. The human rights community can help by  keeping up the pressure on international funding mechanisms to ensure respect for human rights is a core condition to receive funding.  

As the environmental movement pushes for a fast transition to renewable energy, both human rights and environmental advocates have the opportunity to help embed human rights at this key moment of investment, ensuring a truly “clean” source of energy. The adoption of rigorous human rights policies and practices by leading renewable energy companies could provide the momentum needed to influence the industry, but a strong and united civil society will need to push for this change.