New York – Land seizures. Dangerous working conditions. Mistreatment of native populations. For decades, such practices were associated in the public mind with the oil and gas industries. That perception in turn undermined confidence in fossil fuels and, as climate change worsened, helped set the stage for a widespread boom in the renewable energy business.
Now that business is itself under scrutiny — and for some of the same practices.
According to a new report, at least 197 allegations of human rights abuses have been leveled against renewable energy projects in recent years, including land-grabs, dangerous working conditions and even killings. Meanwhile, many of the world's largest publicly held solar and wind companies are failing to meet widely accepted human rights benchmarks.
The report comes from the Business & Human Rights Resource Center, a London-based group that promotes human rights in the corporate world and which has been scrutinizing the renewables business for several years. In 2019, the group documented 47 attacks, ranging from frivolous lawsuits to violence, on individuals who raised concerns about human rights abuses in the industry. That ranked fourth, behind only mining (143 attacks), agribusiness (85) and waste disposal (51).
That’s hardly the kind of company that most renewables executives want to keep, and the report offers some insight into what’s gone wrong. The group evaluated 16 of the world's biggest public renewables companies against standards including the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, as well as against several criteria that the group developed specific to the green energy industry. The results were not good. None of the companies had policies to "to respect land rights, to govern their process of land acquisition, or on just and fair relocation of residents.” Perhaps more worrisome, the probe found that the companies had little to no ability to identify human rights violations in their extensive supply chains.
Those accusations come on top of some other disturbing developments. Fed up indigenous communities in Mexico are now suing the French developer of a massive new wind park after years of complaining that they've been harassed into approving projects, for instance, while Norway is ignoring an appeal from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to suspend a state-backed wind-power project that could harm indigenous herding communities.
Such incidents are especially disheartening because of the hopes that many have invested in the renewables industry. Activists and policymakers have long viewed green energy not just as a means of improving the environment but of mitigating injustices connected to fossil fuels, whether from air pollution, abusive labor conditions or land seizures that disproportionately affect indigenous and low-income communities. From this perspective, a "green economy” didn’t only mean decoupling economic growth from fossil fuels; it also meant healthier neighborhoods and jobs.
An inability to curtail human rights abuses could dash those hopes. And that should serve as a warning for the entire industry, especially as calls for a "green” recovery from the COVID-19 recession intensify. Such abuses have altered public perceptions of other sectors, including apparel and IT, and could surely undermine green businesses too.
As a start, companies and industry bodies should embrace human rights policies in line with international standards. A lack of such policies, the report found, "strongly correlates with allegations of abuse.” They should also consider an unlikely example of good corporate conduct: In recent years, the oil and gas industry, in consultation with governments, has embraced human rights policies on a global scale. Such policies change nothing about environmental harms or climate change. But they do show that even businesses that were once thought irredeemable can in fact reform themselves with the right incentives. In this one case, at least, renewables should consider following the lead of fossil fuels.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.