As our planet faces the growing threat of climate change, the shift towards renewable energy has become more critical than ever. But how do climate change, energy transition, and human rights intersect? Are these issues interconnected, and is the renewable energy industry taking human rights into account? This article delves into these questions and more, exploring the relationship between our changing climate, our progress towards sustainable energy, and the impact on human rights.
Energy transition as a climate change mitigation strategy
Renewable energy technologies, such as solar and wind power, have a much smaller carbon footprint than fossil fuels. Even when taking into account life cycle emissions from renewable energy technologies, they do not contribute as significantly to the greenhouse gas emissions, as fossil fuels, that cause climate change. By adopting renewable energy, we can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, diversify our energy sources, and decrease carbon emissions, helping to limit the rise in global temperatures and its associated impacts. Renewable energy sources are widely available and often cheaper than coal, oil, or gas. They emit little to no greenhouse gases or pollutants into the air. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) recommends that by 2050, 90 percent of the world’s electricity should come from renewable energy. A comprehensive energy transformation can create a better energy system capable of ensuring that global temperatures at the end of the century do not exceed 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. However, to achieve this goal, investments in renewable energy must be accelerated without delay.
The transition to renewable energy is not only important for environmental reasons, but also for promoting social and economic development. Access to affordable, reliable, and clean energy is essential for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and eradicating poverty. Renewable energy can provide electricity to remote and underserved areas, creating opportunities for education, healthcare, and economic empowerment. However, it is important to ensure that the energy transition process respects and upholds human rights, preventing the perpetuation of existing inequalities or the creation of new ones.
Human rights implications in the energy transition
The renewable energy sector has been associated with various human rights violations, including child labour, forced displacement, land-grabbing, poor working conditions, restrictions on collective bargaining and workplace organising, increased inequality, adverse effects on food, health and water resources, loss of self-determination for indigenous peoples, and the destruction of sacred sites. Dispossession of indigenous peoples’ lands remains a significant issue for renewable energy projects in territories with indigenous communities. For example, if a wind farm were to be placed on indigenous lands without proper consent, it could harm livelihoods by blocking access to food if the land was previously used for local farming.
India has set an ambitious goal to increase its renewable energy capacity to 500 GW, or half of its energy needs, by 2030. However, experts are concerned that this push may lead to food insecurity in the future, as the country would need at least 4,00,000 hectares of land by 2030 to achieve its renewable goals. While renewable energy infrastructure has brought economic benefits to some, it has also caused problems for local communities. For example, many villagers have lost their livelihoods as farm workers because solar panels now cover agricultural land. Solar parks have also had a significant impact on local ecosystems and communities, with concerns about disappearing pollinators such as bees and butterflies during installation. There are also concerns about what will happen when the parks are decommissioned. If not handled properly, toxic elements from disposed solar panels can adversely affect ecological systems.
Energy transition also involves a significant increase in the use of rechargeable batteries to power electric vehicles and renewable energy storage units. Key components of these batteries include cobalt, copper, nickel, and lithium. However, the extraction of these raw materials can pose risks to human rights. Amnesty International’s research has shown that mining for metals and minerals for the energy transition can exacerbate human rights abuses experienced by front line communities, including Indigenous peoples. So far, over 500 allegations of human rights abuse have been linked to the extraction of key minerals needed to reach net-zero. Overlooking human rights in energy transition projects can have significant implications for governments and the private sector. Failure to account for human rights can result in community opposition, protests, negative media coverage, litigation, and investor pressure.
Therefore, in the context of transitioning to renewable energy sources, it is important to take into account several key considerations related to human rights:
- Right to Participation: The energy transition should involve meaningful and inclusive participation of all stakeholders, including local communities, indigenous peoples, and marginalised groups. Ensuring their participation in decision-making processes can prevent adverse impacts and ensure that projects align with the needs and aspirations of affected communities.
- Right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC): Projects related to renewable energy, such as large-scale wind or solar installations, should respect the FPIC of indigenous peoples and affected communities. FPIC ensures that these communities have the right to give or withhold consent to projects that may affect their lands, resources, and livelihoods.
- Right to Access and Affordability: As the transition progresses, it is crucial to ensure that renewable energy is accessible and affordable for all. Policies should prioritise energy access for vulnerable and marginalised populations, as energy poverty can exacerbate existing inequalities.
- Labour Rights: The transition to a low-carbon economy must consider the rights of workers in fossil fuel industries. Adequate support, retraining programs, and alternative employment opportunities should be provided to mitigate the social and economic impacts on affected workers and their communities.
- Right to a Healthy Environment: Renewable energy projects must be designed and implemented in a manner that minimises environmental harm and prevents adverse impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity. Robust environmental safeguards should be in place to protect the rights of future generations.
It is imperative to address climate change through a just and rights-based energy transition in order to achieve sustainable development. As the world moves towards renewable energy, it is crucial to recognise and uphold human rights considerations. Collaboration between governments, businesses, civil society organisations, and international institutions is necessary to ensure that efforts to mitigate climate change do not come at the expense of human rights, but rather promote social justice, equality, and inclusivity. By incorporating human rights principles into energy transition policies and practices, we can create a sustainable and equitable future for all.