How the renewable energy industry can improve our quality of life

The renewable energy industry, in addition to providing access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy, can improve people’s quality of life by helping to mitigate climate change, alleviate poverty, fight hunger, increase access to healthcare, education, and clean water, and protect life on land and in water. 

The Columbia Centre on Sustainable Investment (CCSI), a joint centre of Columbia Law School and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, in conjunction with non-profits Equitable Origin, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), has compiled a report, “Mapping the Renewable Energy Sector to the Sustainable Development Goals: An Atlas”, which highlights the role the renewable energy industry can play in meeting the UN’s goals for a better and more sustainable future for all.

This is a summary of the report.

Click here to download the full report

In 2015, the 193 United Nations (UN) member states unanimously adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, establishing a consensus development agenda and accompanying targets to be met by 2030. These goals built upon the successes of the Millennium Development Goals to create a common framework for equitable, inclusive, and environmentally sound economic development. The 2030 agenda is grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties, and “seek(s) to realise the human rights of all.”

The renewable energy industry is instrumental to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to realise a better In addition to core contributions to the achievement of SDG 7, which focuses on access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, and SDG 13, on urgent action to combat climate change, the renewable energy sector can also make critical contributions to the other 15 SDGs, including helping to alleviate poverty, fight hunger, increase access to healthcare, education, and clean water, and protect life on land and in water.

The renewable energy industry and the SDGs

There are numerous examples of the positive contributions that renewable energy companies are already making to the SDGs; several examples of these contributions are noted throughout the atlas. In East Africa, for example, manufacturers and developers are partnering to source and install solar arrays locally while stimulating regional economic development and creating jobs.

In Taiwan, offshore wind developers are working with local fisherman to negotiate cooperation agreements that compensate communities for impacts, employ community members, establish standards of environmental protection, and share of local weather data. In Puerto Rico, companies are re-electrifying the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria and providing for future disaster resilience.

Nevertheless, given the urgency and scale at which renewables must be deployed to meet the world’s sustainable development and climate goals, it is critical that the industry understand the full range of its potential opportunities and impacts on all of the SDGs. These opportunities and impacts can stem from provision of renewable energy itself, production practices, supply chain sourcing, and corporate governance.

While the industry is critical to the transition to a sustainable, low-carbon global economy, some renewable energy projects have been linked to allegations of human rights abuse, including labour rights concerns, harm to indigenous peoples’ livelihoods, land, and territories, and attacks against human rights defenders.  As the SDGs “seek to realise the human rights of all,” and more than 90% of the SDG targets are linked to international human rights and labour standards, companies must respect human rights in their core operations, in line with responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Respect for human rights is essential for the renewable energy industry to maximise its positive contributions to the SDGs, enable both a fast and sustainable transition to a low-carbon economy, and ensure that contributions to some SDGs do not come at the expense of others.

Atlas organisation

This atlas intends to serve as a guide for renewable energy developers, operators, and investors, as well as their government partners, to maximise the renewable energy sector’s contributions to the SDGs. Each chapter in this atlas corresponds to one of the 17 SDGs, and includes the following:

  • An explanation of potential renewable energy sector impacts on each SDG.
  • A list of key SDG targets relevant for the sector.
  • A description of potential opportunities for renewable energy companies to integrate the goal into their core business practices.
  • A description of potential opportunities for renewable energy companies to collaborate with other stakeholders and leverage resources to achieve the SDGs.
  • Case studies highlighting existing innovative initiatives and good practices.
  • Suggested further reading.

While government investment, regulation, and planning will be essential to achieve the SDGs, this atlas focuses on what companies can do, both alone and in collaboration with communities, governments, investors, and industry peers, to promote sustainable development.

The business case for alignment to the SDGs and human rights principles

There is a strong business case for companies to adopt the recommendations in this atlas and contribute to the SDGs in a way which is meaningful and lives up to evolving global expectations of business actors. By aligning conduct to the SDGs and respecting human rights and environment through core business, supply chain management, and collaboration with other stakeholders, companies can:

  • Bolster company and sector reputations and find new market opportunities: By integrating the SDGs and human rights principles into core business and mapping and reporting SDG contributions grounded in respect for human rights and environment, renewable energy companies can differentiate themselves from other energy providers to gain competitive advantages, thereby potentially attracting new customers hoping to procure energy from environmentally sound and socially inclusive projects. These benefits may also improve employee recruitment and morale. Inclusive project design can reduce costs and potentially unearth new business and revenue structures that increase access and demand.
  • Attract and retain investors: Investors have a responsibility to respect human rights throughout their business activities and are increasingly concerned about the social and environmental impacts of their investments. Accordingly, many investors expect the companies that they work with to adhere to international sustainability and human rights principles and standards including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the IFC Performance Standards, and OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, among others. By integrating the SDGs and human rights principles into core business and conducting human rights due diligence, renewable energy companies can be better prepared to meet investor needs and expectations, access competitive sources of capital, and may be able to attract more favourable financial terms than they would otherwise.
  • Minimise environmental, social, regulatory, financial, reputational, and legal risk: By continuing to consult with affected stakeholders from the early stages of project planning though project closure, and engaging in robust environmental and human rights due diligence, renewable companies can reduce project risks, including risks of cancellation of licenses or permits, project disruption and delay, bad press, unintended environmental impacts, environmental or economic liabilities, and increased remediation costs, among others. Moreover, reduced environmental, social, regulatory, financial, and legal risks increase company and project bankability and attractiveness to investors.

Renewable energy is a linchpin of the Sustainable Development Agenda. This atlas enumerates concrete steps that renewable energy companies can take to maintain a social license to operate, build political support for pro-renewable energy policies, and promote corporate citizenship. Responsible business conduct is crucial to the renewable energy industry’s long-term success and to ensuring both a fast and fair transition to a low-carbon economy.

Acknowledgment

This summary is published here with permission.

Click here to download the full report

Contact United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UNSDSN), info@unsdsn.org

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