The global renewable energy industry is failing on human rights, with ‘land grabs’ and other abuses threatening to undermine the sector’s credibility as a global force for good, according to a new study claiming to be the first of its kind.

The London-based Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) – which ranked 16 of the world’s biggest publicly-traded renewable operators and investors – said the industry “has a long way to go to demonstrate its respect for the human rights of communities and workers in their operations and supply chains”.

Global giant Iberdrola scored highest in the BHRRC’s ratings at 53%, with other European operators such as Enel and Orsted also near the top. China’s CGN and PowerChina were bottom of the list, the latter with a score of 0. The average score was 22%.

The BHRRC – which looked at various indicators such as land and labour rights, health & safety and anti-corruption measures – said even the best performers had work to do, and noted 197 allegations of human rights abuses against renewable energy projects since 2010.

The body singled out the issue of land rights as an area that needed particular attention by the renewables sector.

“The widespread and egregious practice of land grabs, for example, is reflected in the fact that no companies scored points for having policies to respect land rights, to govern their process of land acquisition, or on just and fair relocation of residents,” said the report.

In a foreword to the benchmark study, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, now professor for climate justice at Trinity College, Dublin, said: “A narrow focus on short term return on investments regardless of the harm to people and the environment has led fossil fuel companies to lose legitimacy and social licence to operate.

“If the same happens to renewable energy companies, it will only slow our expansion to a net-zero carbon future.”

The BRRC said only four companies – Acciona, Enel, Iberdrola, and Orsted – specifically commit to implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights or the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. “These four are also the highest scoring companies on the benchmark overall.”

Renewable Energy & Human Rights Benchmark

Iberdrola (Spain) 53

Acciona (Spain) 51

Orsted (Denmark) 47

Enel (Italy) 44

EDP (Portugal) 34

EDF Energy (France) 31

Engie (France) 28

E. ON (Germany) 19

RWE (Germany) 17

Jinko Solar (China) 7

Blackrock (United States) 6

NextEra (United States) 4

Brookfield (Canada) 4

The Southern Company (United States) 3

China General Nuclear Power Corp (China) 2

PowerChina (China) 0

Source: Business & Human Rights Resource Centre