The Pursuit of Renewable Energy Poses a Serious Threat to Human Rights, But It Doesn’t Have To

Solina Kennedy
September 02, 2019

A conversation with Annie Signorelli, Project Manager for Renewable Energy and Human Rights at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre

This is the first interview in our Climate Crisis, Global Land Use, and Human Rights Interview Series. Read the interviews with LiKEN and INFID.
The climate crisis threatens to drastically alter people’s relationships with the land on which they rely. Meanwhile, many climate solutions are themselves land-intensive: solar and wind energy, carbon dioxide sequestration, and finding places for people displaced by climate change to live and grow food. The result is an ever increasing competition for land, as well as governance and justice challenges that are both intractable and inextricably linked. 

On September 27th, 2019, Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI), Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Landesa, and Wake Forest Law School will host a day-long conference on the intersection of the climate crisis, global land use and human rights. This series of blog posts turns to experts and key stakeholders in relevant fields to offer their perspectives on relevant challenges, gaps, and solutions at the nexus of these issues.

In this interview, Annie Signorelli, Project Manager for Renewable Energy and Human Rights at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), discusses the critical need for embedding human rights, especially those of indigenous communities, within the renewable energy sector, and the hurdles faced in pursuing environmental justice without compromising human rights. 

1. How does your work relate to climate change, land-use and/or human rights?

There is an urgent need for a rapid global transition to a low-carbon economy, but this transition must not come at the cost of the rights of people, especially indigenous peoples who are disproportionately negatively impacted by the expansion of renewable energy projects. As part of our wide range of corporate accountability and transparency work, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is focusing on improving the human rights practices of renewable energy companies. The sector’s intrinsic role in fighting climate change combined with a troubling rise in allegations of human rights abuses makes this a pivotal moment for the industry to tackle these challenges head on and avoid making the same mistakes as oil, gas, and mining. 

Since 2010, we have approached companies in the renewable energy sector to respond to allegations of human rights abuses 152 times. The frequency of allegations has increased in recent years with one third having occurred between 2017-2019. We previously undertook two baseline studies of companies in the renewable energy sector – one on wind and hydropower and a second on solar, bioenergy, and geothermal. We found that nearly half of the 109 companies we surveyed did not have a basic human rights commitment in place, and only five out of 59 companies included in the most recent outreach met four basic criteria on human rights. Following these studies, we identified a corporate benchmark as a tool for creating competition among renewable energy industry peers that could generate a “race to the top” mentality on human rights. We are now in the process of developing the first-ever company ranking to evaluate and hold renewable energy companies accountable for their human rights impacts.

2. Within the nexus of the climate crisis, land use and human rights, what do you see as the biggest issues? 

Failing to adequately identify and address human rights impacts, including improper or illegal use of land, creates risks that could ultimately stall or in some cases even permanently halt renewable energy investments. When the rights of indigenous peoples, affected communities, or workers are violated, businesses can face reputational and legal repercussions that result in delays or cancellations which in turn slows down the shared goal of getting more renewable energy to market. In some cases, we’re already seeing members of communities impacted by renewable energy projects beginning to turn against the sector as a result of the rights violations they are increasingly experiencing.

We are also seeing a concerning rise in backlash against human rights and environmental defenders exercising their right to protest or oppose renewable energy projects – including cases in which companies respond with threats or violence. According to our research, renewable energy is now the sector with the third highest number of threats against human rights defenders – only behind mining and agribusiness. Without addressing these fundamental rights at risk, a truly sustainable future is not attainable.

3. What strategies or solutions are you pursuing to address these issues? And what are the main hindrances you face?

We are pursuing several strategies to address these issues: 

  1. Engagement with communities and workers affected by renewable energy: We continue to seek responses from companies whenever allegations are raised about their operations, whether these occur in renewable energy or in other sectors. We also aim to more directly incorporate the concerns and proposed solutions of relevant indigenous and other communities affected by renewable energy operations, ensuring their perspectives are reflected throughout our engagement with renewable energy companies and investors. 
  2. Raising awareness among investors about the steps they can take to ensure their renewable energy investments respect human rights: In June 2019 we released an investor briefing on renewable energy and human rights that provides concise “snapshot” overviews for each of the five major renewable energy subsectors (solar, wind, geothermal, bioenergy, and hydropower). This briefing is meant to be an accessible tool for investors looking to integrate human rights considerations in their renewable energy investments, and provide them with guidance for engaging directly with companies to improve policies and practices.  
  3. Promoting a race to the top on human rights by ranking renewable energy companies: The benchmark we are currently developing aims to increase respect for human rights in the sector in order to support a just transition to a low-carbon economy. Our indicators focus on salient risks to the renewable energy industry, aiming to measure companies’ policies, practices, and performance on issues related to indigenous peoples, workers, women, as well as land, water, and the environment, among others.

4. If you held the microphone on a world stage, what would you ask of your fellow colleagues—be it activists, lawyers, climate scientists, etc.—working on the issues of the climate crisis, land tenure, and/or human rights? 

We are at a crucial tipping point in the global energy transition. This is our opportunity to guide this transition in a way that is truly beneficial for both people and planet, keeping in mind the decades and centuries of lessons learned by the fossil fuel industry. Without infusing respect for human rights, including land rights, projects can face delays and even cancellations that ultimately will slow down the progress towards global uptake of renewable energy. Similarly, we cannot lose sight of the need for social protections and vocational training for workers in fossil fuel industries who are facing the loss of their jobs and livelihoods as part of this transition. The human rights, trade union, indigenous peoples, and climate change movements have a unique opportunity to work together in support of these two key elements required for a fair and fast transition to a low-carbon economy.

5. What do you wish more people better understood regarding the intersection of the climate crisis, land tenure and human rights?

That these are all are inextricably linked. We cannot make progress on one without also acting on the others. Many renewable energy companies are currently considered to have glowing reputations because of their vital role in forging a path towards a low-carbon economy. But this reputation will quickly become tarnished and their contributions counteracted if the industry does not recognize the equally vital imperative of embedding human rights due diligence from the outset.

More information on the September 27th Climate Crisis, Global Land Use, and Human Rights conference is available hereRegistration is free but required.