Global Justice and Intersectionality

Renewable energy production not at the expense of people and the environment

What is the problem?

The energy sector is the largest contributor to climate change, accounting for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, the switch from fossil fuels to renewable energies is essential to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement. However, a closer look reveals that many renewable energies have disastrous social as well as environmental consequences. A few examples of renewable energy production projects that are being implemented in the global South and that have the negative consequences mentioned above will be presented.

Hydpropower projects Hydropower is experiencing a boom worldwide in the form of huge dams. Many governments see them as a necessary and important technology for the energy revolution. The International Hydropower Association(IHA) is an organization of companies and investors from all over the world, who are active in the hydropower business. At the IHA Congress, which took place in May 2017 in Addis Ababa, many discussions related to both the UN goals for sustainable development (SDG) and the Paris Climate Agreements. Both include a commitment to improve access to electricity and water in the context of climate change, and the hydropower industry is eager to present its technology as a solution to both problems. [1]

In many cases, however, hydropower projects lead to massive human rights violations: People are displaced, lose their arable land and thus their access to sufficient food. In addition, studies show that large-scale damming of rivers is more harmful to the climate than beneficial. The flooded plants rot. In some cases, this produces as many greenhouse gases as burning fossil energy.

Hydropower in Brasil The Belo Monte hydropower plant is an important infrastructure project of the government. It is intended to bring development to the region, improve the country's energy security and contribute to climate protection. The local population is affected in various ways by the construction of the dams: Housing settlements are flooded and fishing grounds destroyed, an important source of livelihood for the local population (which includes various indigenous groups). There was also no consultation and compensation as requiered by ILO Convention 169. Many indigenous communities have already taken legal action against the project. Finally, the electricity produced is not destined for the surrounding villages (where many people live without electricity), but is channelled to the urban economic centres of Brazil. With regard to the hydropower projects, the parties involved are motivated not only by energy production but also by the need to create cost-effective transport routes for raw materials. For example, the Tapajós dam project will make it worthwhile to grow soy on a large scale in regions that have so far been spared the expansion of the agricultural industry. In the case of the Belo Monte dam project, several European companies are involved, including German companies, including Siemens and Voith Hydro. Critics report that these companies are not fulfilling their human rights responsibilities sufficiently. Insufficient checks on the consequences of the project were carried. Also no discreet discussions with the protesting population was realized. [1] [2]

Battery production: Lithium mining Lithium has become an enormously sought-after raw material due to the switch to electromobility and the prioritization of battery operation. However, lithium mining is problematic in regard of its high water consumption and other impacts on the surrounding ecosystems. Chile is the world's second largest producer of lithium and by far the largest exporter of lithium carbonate. The example of the Atacama salt lake already clearly shows how much the environment suffers when lithium is extracted. According to a recent study on the effects of lithium in the Atacama salt lake, lithium production alone requires about 200 million liters of water per day. This damages bird species and microfauna and reduces the available water for the neighboring population. Dust from the slag heaps spreads in the environment and can damage the health of people and animals. Because of the current lithium boom, the Chilean government has approved a tripling of production volumes at the beginning of 2018. The surrounding communities, which were not included in this decision, do not see themselves participating in the profits and instead fear for their water supply. [3]

Wind power, solar plants and geothermal energy Against the background of climate-damaging dams, wind turbines and solar plants are all the more important. However, their production requires mineral raw materials that are mined in Central Africa and South America. For these mines, too, people are often forced to relocate or have to work under life-threatening conditions. Resettlement measures are also carried out for geothermal energy plants, where the population is not always compensated. For example, a group of Masai in Olkaria (Kenya) was relocated for such a project, but they are still waiting for the allocation of their own land rights in another place. [4]

Agrofuels For more than 10 years now, especially in the global south, more and more areas have been cultivating maize, soy and sugar cane with the aim of producing biofuel to satisfy European demand. Also oil palm plantations are planted for this purpose. Partly such investments are also financed with development funds from Europe. It is often European private investors but also credit institutions, such as pension funds, which invest money in such plantations. As a result of such land purchases, according to human rights organisations such as FIAN, local people who previously lived on the land are deprived of its use (often possible because they do not have secure land titles).

2 case studies from Sierra Leone In this country, huge areas of land were leased for several decades to a project of the Swiss company Addax BioEnergy. Over half of the project was financed by development banks from Europe. The sugar cane planted there on a large scale will be converted into bioethanol. The local population, whose right to food and water is being violated, suffers more. The long leases negotiated between the government of Sierra Leone and the company - initially 50 years with a potential extension of 20 years - deprive several generations of access to land and water. [5]

Also in Sierra Leone, the multinational company SOCFIN has acquired more than 18,000 hectares of land for industrial palm oil plantations in the south of Sierra Leone (Malen Chiefdom, Pujehun district) since 2011. Since then, a land conflict has been raging between SOCFIN, the local authorities and the affected communities. Since the beginning of SOCFIN's activities, the communities that resisted the land deal have been systematically criminalised.. [6]

What's the measure?

It is essential that all actors involved in a project, be it the governments of the countries in which such projects are implemented or the foreign companies and investors involved or their home countries, comply with their human rights obligations:

  • Therefore, an important measure would be to disclose the supply chains of companies and to examine them in terms of human rights -> politicians must be persuaded to approve the Supply Chain Act as it is being promoted by an association of NGOs. More information:
  • The creation of an effective and legally binding international instrument that forces corporations and other business enterprises to respect human rights and gives those negatively affected by the projects the opportunity to take legal action in their home countries as well as in the countries where the companies are based. (Check out:
  • Promotion of decentralized renewable energy production, which benefits the local population in various ways (energetically, financially) and is beneficial to an ecologically intact environment.
  • Instead of the goal of equipping the same number of cars and other motor vehicles as they exist today with lithium-based electric motors, alternative ways must be found: a reduction in the number of vehicles, car-sharing models, expansion of public transport, hydroelectric fuel cells, etc.
  • There is also a need for stronger references to human rights in international climate agreements. So far, these have hardly existed at all, and if they have, as in the preamble to the Paris Agreement, then in a non-legally binding form.
  • Reducing energy consumption worldwide.

Further literature, sources

  1. Lateinamerika Nachrichten und Gegenstroemung : GESTAUTE STRÖMEWASSERKRAFT: FLUCH ODER SEGEN FÜR LATEINAMERIKA? (2017, )
  2. Kleiber, Tina und Christian Russau (2014): Der Belo-Monte-Staudamm und die Rolle europäischer Konzerne, Berlin: Gegenstroemung,
  3. Powershift: Neue Rohstoffkapitel in EU-Handelsabkommen – eine Bestandsaufnahme (2019, )
  4. FIAN Deutschland: Klimawandel und Menschenrechte. Die Folgen des Klimawandels für das Recht auf Nahrung und das Recht auf Wasser (2018, )
  5. FIAN Österreich: Makeni – Sierra Leone: Land Grabbing für europäische Tanks (o.A., )
  6. FIAN Österreich: Sierra Leone: Landnahme durch Palmöl-Firma SOCFIN beenden (2019, )

Moreover: The homepages of the different FIAN sections (Germany, Austria, Belgium) contain many studies, especially on the subject of landgrabbing for agrofuels.