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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Some Clean Power Is Coming at the Expense of Human Rights

A new study has found that the clean energy sector is falling short on human rights indicators, especially land rights and Indigenous peoples’ rights.
By Kate Zerrenner
Human Rights

A new study by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) has found that the clean power sector is falling short on human rights indicators, especially land rights and Indigenous peoples’ rights. The report notes that 188 allegations of human rights abuses have been made in the past 10 years, and of the companies that responded to requests for data on human rights, only one of them had made a public commitment to protect Indigenous rights.

All companies should be held to the same human rights standard

Renewable energy has an essential role to play in addressing climate change. To some extent, clean energy has been relatively less politicized than climate change policy as a whole. Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum, creating new and robust economic development opportunities appeals to policymakers. Further, as both solar and wind power reached economic parity with traditional fossil fuels, investing in these clean energy resources made more sense from both a climate perspective as well as a financial one.

Before the pandemic, clean energy jobs were among the fastest growing in the U.S. While over 600,000 clean energy jobs have been lost since March, it is critical that the strides that have been made to install more renewable energy not be lost. But at the same time, the renewable energy sector needs to ensure it is developing new projects responsibly.

Similar allegations abound in other high-risk industries like agricultural products and mining. Traditional energy companies have a long history of ignoring concerns of Indigenous communities, and unfortunately some renewable energy companies are following suit. Considering that renewable energy is a sustainable economy industry, in theory, shareholders should be more willing to hold companies to a higher standard for accountability. This benchmark study hopefully paves the way to enable that to happen going forward.

Indigenous rights have come under attack

Opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, among others, has been a high-profile case for years, resulting in a victory for Standing Rock in March 2020 when a judge ordered an environmental review of the project. But Dakota Access is one among several other cases going on in protest to traditional energy projects that have a direct impact on Indigenous communities. The renewable energy industry is not immune to these protests either.

According to BHRRC, 50 percent of complaints by Indigenous communities against renewable energy companies were in Central and South America, and 28 percent are in Asia. But developed countries cannot let themselves off the hook: Many allegations are also against countries in Europe and North America. Norway’s Sámi people have opposed wind farms on traditional herding lands. Further, Indigenous leaders in Canada say that U.S. demand for clean energy in the form of hydropower is damaging traditional hunting grounds and seeking little to no input from the communities themselves.

The path forward for human rights and renewables

As an industry seeking sustainable solutions to one of our most intractable problems, considering the impacts on humans must be part of the equation. If done right, renewable energy could act as reconciliation between Indigenous communities, industry and government. Partnering with Indigenous communities to make decisions appropriate to the traditional and future needs of the people could enable them not only to have emotional ownership in the projects, but possibly provide a pathway to greater economic opportunity. This is especially important as some indigenous communities struggle to maintain economic viability.

As with climate justice, the most effective solutions to the climate problem will need to be more inclusive and diverse. The communities that are disproportionately affected should have a say in the solution, but they are more likely to understand the nuanced impacts on the ground. Some companies understand this and are partnering with Indigenous communities in powerful ways. Projects including wind farms in Mexico and South Africa and several wind and solar projects in Canada that are owned by the affected Indigenous communities can provide opportunities that may not otherwise exist.

In a moment when we are talking about historical racial injustice, we must also talk about solutions. Renewable energy companies have an opportunity to be leaders in this space. At the very least, they should not continue the injustice of the past.

Image credit: Hans Braxmeier/Pixabay

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner