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The Dark Side of Renewable Energy?

“Fossil fuels are categorically worse at hurting the environment, and even society, than renewables”, says Benjamin Sovacool – a professor of Energy Policy at the University of Sussex. While renewable energy is certainly not perfect, access to cleaner and cheaper energy impacts many areas of life beyond the immediately obvious. A recent focus on the links between social inequalities and energy show troubling outcomes, especially relating to race. A 2019 study found that black and low-income Americans are more likely to die from power plant pollution, often as a result of proximity stemming from lower incomes or historical housing segregation that remains embedded in current society. Living near highly polluting plants dramatically worsens health and increases the risk of respiratory illnesses – especially during the development years for children.

Jacqui Patterson, Senior Director for the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), recently noted that black children are more likely to be hospitalised with respiratory illnesses such as asthma, with a higher number dying. According to CDC reports, African American adults are also more susceptible to lung disease whilst actually being less likely to smoke. The complex, intertwined relationship with energy access goes further. On days with particularly high levels of air pollution, fewer children are likely to attend school. Those that do attend may struggle with lead and other poisonous toxins that can interfere with learning, Patterson stated. 

Equally, proximity to polluted areas depresses house prices – the metric often used to determine government services and school funding in the US. Unfortunately, with limited education, there are often fewer employment opportunities and limited chances to build wealth. This creates a cycle which is difficult to break. Greater economic disparities only add fuel to the fire. Lower incomes reduce housing options, meaning the homes people have to live in lack the necessary resilience to combat issues like energy efficiency and climate change. Energy inefficient homes are susceptible to higher energy and heating bills, increased levels of energy insecurity and a greater proportion of income spent on energy. According to a report released earlier this year, around half of African American families reported issues relating to energy insecurity compared to 30% of white families.

Experts reinforce the need for the expansion of renewable energy to provide affordable access to clean energy, build resilience and increased community ownership. Nonetheless, while the potential for renewable energy is under the spotlight recently, it’s not without challenges. Successful low-carbon energy transitions rely on inclusion and community participation. That is, communities where new renewable energy projects have been given the green light, should also see benefits to the local economy via job creation and, in some cases, community ownership. In Australia, multiple expert groups expect wind and solar could provide up to 75% of total electricity by 2025. Renewables are also considered to be a key area for post-COVID recovery, providing an opportunity to build a new industry while improving health and reducing the climate change impact of the country.  Too often, however, the economic benefits are not enjoyed by local communities. High salary roles fall to those involved in the manufacturing and construction of infrastructure rather than those at the local level, with the situation described as a “circus coming to town” rather than jobs. Big projects typically favour large companies with established supply chains rather than the retraining and employment of locals. Job creation is often the argument in favour of more harmful and extractive industries. For every job in mining, 25 more are created indirectly. Mining also plays a role in the production of renewable energy components, with metals forming key parts.

Mining has a long and troubled history when it comes to the destruction of the local environment. However, while the ‘E’ in ESG is usually the focus, there is now also a growing emphasis being placed on social criteria. As a recent article in Foreign Policy mentions, “the question of how to source metals and minerals ethically remains a legitimate and urgent one.” The quest for clean and affordable energy must not exacerbate pre-existing social and environmental challenges. In countries where these mines exist, there are numerous allegations of human rights abuses. For example, in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo there are multiple claims of; child labour and exploitation, the subjugation of ethnic minorities, increased pollution, worsening biodiversity loss and gender inequalities.

The ethical sourcing of raw materials plagues the rise of clean energy. In a recent report from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, 16 of the largest public solar and wind companies were assessed against a newly established human rights benchmark defined by the UN, and none fully met their responsibilities. Not a single company was found to be respecting land rights and only one was committed to indigenous rights. The sector as a whole struggles with human rights violations, with over 35 allegations made in the last year alone.  The key indicators of human rights obligations give an average score for the sector similar to ‘high-risk’ industries like agriculture and fashion.

The enormous potential of renewables is no longer a secret, but it must still tackle its problems to become a widespread, feasible energy solution. To bring light to social impacts, greater transparency is required. Marti Flacks, deputy director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, says that recent poor results against human rights benchmarks “points the way for renewable energy companies and investors to make improvements to make sure the transition to a net-zero carbon economy is both fast and fair. The best way they can do this is by carrying out human rights due diligence to prevent, identify and mitigate risks throughout their operations and supply chains.”