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It is time to fix injustice in global solar supply chains

Victims of oppression in Xinjiang pay the price for cheap, coal-intensive solar modules.

Tens of thousands of protesters in the British capital London condemned the Chinese government’s systematic campaign of human rights violations" against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Tens of thousands of protesters in London in October 2021 condemned the Chinese government’s systematic campaign of human rights violations" against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Image via Shutterstock/Rasid Aslim

[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

At the COP27 climate conference in Egypt and the G20 summit in Indonesia, observers directed special attention to how U.S. and Chinese officials behaved towards one another, probing potential implications for increasingly uncertain U.S.-China relations.

Amidst the pageantry, many commentators repeated the common refrain that cooperation with China on climate action is essential, with allegedly vast implications for global environmental efforts. Indeed, in his direct meeting with Xi Jinping, President Joe Biden pushed for the resumption of climate dialogue, even while continuing to pressure the Chinese leader on other issues such as human rights abuses in China.

Yet when it comes to tensions over Chinese-produced solar panels, climate objectives and human rights concerns are in direct conflict.

Starting in June, Customs and Border Protection officers began to impound shipments of solar panels under the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, a U.S. law targeting state-organized forced labor initiatives in the Xinjiang region of China. With the European Union considering similar import restrictions, solar industry stakeholders are finally starting to grapple with the gravity of a crystalline silicon solar panel manufacturing chain in Xinjiang that is implicated in both morally unconscionable and environmentally unsustainable practices.

Chinese solar manufacturers in the Xinjiang region participate in coercive state-sponsored labor programs that exploit workers drafted from Uyghur, Kazakh and other minoritized ethnic communities. Those same solar factories burn large quantities of coal for electricity and industrial heat, mined in vast state-affiliated industrial parks in Xinjiang that themselves take advantage of forced labor. Following recent reports — a U.N. report on Contemporary Forms of Slavery as well as a long-anticipated report from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on human rights violations in Xinjiang — scrutiny of the solar industry’s connections to the region will likely only intensify further.

Chinese solar manufacturers in the Xinjiang region participate in coercive state-sponsored labor programs that exploit workers drafted from Uyghur, Kazakh and other minoritized ethnic communities.

The climate community must act urgently to address forced labor use and environmental injustice in the solar manufacturing sector. Yet to date, many environmental organizations and solar industry actors have moved far too hesitantly, adopting weak measures that will fail to address the Chinese government’s unjust policies in Xinjiang and the moral risks embedded in the production of solar panels. Simultaneously, Xinjiang is becoming increasingly entangled with other clean technology sectors such as lithium mining and electric vehicle battery production, a trend that threatens to further transform the region into a sacrifice zone for global climate efforts.

The advocacy community and clean energy companies must send a strong signal that they will not turn a blind eye to human rights abuses and environmental injustice in Xinjiang. Downstream companies that make finished solar products, solar farm developers and solar panel installation firms should adopt stricter supply chain standards that avoid business deals with upstream solar manufacturers that operate factories in Xinjiang. Such measures would represent a serious commitment given the region’s significant share of the solar supply chain at certain steps, but the rapidly advancing global solar sector can undoubtedly overcome this challenge — especially if policymakers and private industry make large investments into new, socially responsible solar manufacturing capacity.

One large solar-grade polysilicon plant operated by GCL-Poly Energy Holdings in Xinjiang is a textbook example of prioritizing cheap costs at the expense of the environment and workers’ rights. A sequence of open-pit coal mines stretches end-to-end for over 5.5 miles, a short distance away from five 660-megawatt coal-fired power units that power the complex. State media (Chinese) boasts that the factory participates in government programs that enroll Uyghur workers, who undergo "military-style" training. As of 2020, GCL-Poly’s factories in the region can make up to 40,000 metric tons of solar-grade polysilicon per year, a full 8.8 percent of China’s production capacity. In total, the Xinjiang region possessed 42 percent of the world's solar-grade polysilicon factory capacity in 2021.

In response to increasing social concerns, solar companies have begun implementing supply chain tracing and auditing programs to better avoid solar commodity shipments from Xinjiang. Industry analysts also point out that China is mostly building new solar factory capacity outside Xinjiang, increasing the supply of Xinjiang-free solar products.

However, tracing programs are likely doomed to be ineffective, superficial half-measures. Chinese authorities tightly monitor and restrict information in the Xinjiang region, limiting auditors’ ability to investigate. Furthermore, current tracing and certification protocols would permit downstream buyers to keep sourcing solar PV commodities from manufacturers running factories in Xinjiang, so long as the specific shipments they purchase possess no connections to the region.

From cobalt mining to conflict diamonds to palm oil, international norms have long emphasized zero tolerance for forced labor risks. Solar products should be no exception, and to call out injustice in the solar supply chain by no means unfairly singles out the solar industry or China. Coerced labor and environmental injustice should be addressed anywhere they occur.

Solar photovoltaics remain a key component of global clean energy efforts. Clean energy markets should mobilize to finance large-scale, alternative solar manufacturing capacity outside of China. Meanwhile, following the example of the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States, policymakers across the world should support solar supply chain reorganization efforts by enacting strong incentives for new solar factories.

Such efforts could ultimately strengthen the global solar sector over the long term. A diversified solar manufacturing chain spread out across many countries will be more resilient to unpredictable disruptions, ensuring a more reliable and affordable supply of solar panels in the face of economic volatility or geopolitical tension. Meanwhile, an increased focus on socially and environmentally responsible solar manufacturing will encourage technical innovation that could propel solar technology to new heights. Broadly, bold efforts to establish new solar manufacturing capacity could accelerate the pace of cost improvements for solar technologies, while producing large economic rewards for workers, industry and governments.

But while reforming the solar supply chain offers many practical benefits, we should pursue reform chiefly because it is the right choice.

The common refrain at international forums such as the COP27 climate meeting is that to advance just global climate action is to pursue a more positive and equitable future for humanity. No such project can remain silent in the face of crimes against humanity.

As we continue to expand clean energy capacity globally, we must continually strive for a future energy system where all share fairly in its benefits and none shoulder its costs unjustly, no matter where they are in the world.

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