Human Rights Cost of Renewable Energy – Jocelyn Phung

Throughout the week of UN COP27, I attended panels and discussions ranging from coral reef restoration to net-zero technologies to climate finance. One that stuck with me was Voices of Indigenous Rights Defenders: Cases of Criminalization Across The Globe at the Indigenous Peoples’ Pavilion. The panel highlighted that the development of renewable energy requires
increased extraction and mining of transition minerals, which leads to violations of Indigenous rights and criminalization of Indigenous rights defenders. I heard from Yana Tannagasheva of the Shor people from western Siberia, Russia. She comes from the Kazas village, which was burned down by a coal company nearby because the Indigenous people residing there refused to sell their houses. In her video series Ten Stories About Coal, she described the grave impacts of open-pit coal mining: black rivers, black snow, polluted air, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. Tannagasheva had to flee her homeland and seek asylum elsewhere due to prosecution and threats from both the coal companies and the government for speaking out.

But that is only the coal industry, right? Renewable energy will be different; renewable energy is clean and green. At the same panel, I heard stories from human rights defenders from Nepal, who were arrested, detained and tortured for opposing a hydropower project in their sacred rivers. Another speaker detailed that Indigenous rights defenders who opposed lithium extraction in the Salar de Atacama salt flats were arrested, detained, and brutally beaten under police vigilance in Argentina, and many were murdered in Chile. No free, prior, informed consent was obtained from the communities from the mining operations.

Is renewable energy an equitable solution to climate change? The global demand for lithium carbonate, and as a result lithium mining, is projected to increase sixfold between 2019 and 2030 for clean technologies such as electrical vehicles and solar panels. Neodymium mining for wind turbines will have to increase by 1000-4000% in coming decades. Indium mining for solar semiconductors will need to increase 8000%. Cobalt for energy storage batteries will increase by 300%-800%.

While the sun will always shine and the wind will always blow as long as we are alive, the development of renewable energy infrastructure and green technologies requires more materials and minerals than we are currently extracting from the Earth for coal, oil and natural gas. That is not to say that fossil fuels should be a part of our future – fossil fuels must be phased out entirely. At the same time, we cannot operate under the illusion that climate justice will be delivered with continual overconsumption and waste of energy, even if that energy is coming from renewable sources. The global demand for energy and thus materials will have to decrease significantly in order for renewable energy to be sustainable. Indigenous rights violations from mining of transition minerals is only one issue that comes with renewable energy. The climate crisis is the most pressing issue of our generation, but climate action cannot come at a cost to human rights. Solutions to the climate crisis must be rights-based, community-based and equitable. Corporations involved in mining operations should be obliged to conduct human rights due diligence, risk assessments and seek free, prior, informed consent from potentially impacted communities. Renewable energy can be a solution to climate change, but we need to consider more than simply the technical aspects, and human rights need to be prioritized.