· Published in European Multinationals and Authoritarian Regimes

“So that everything can stay the same” Could Europe’s “Green Deal” end up fuelling human rights and environmental abuse?

Observatoire des multinationales explores one of the dark sides of the much vaunted European Green Deal: how it could, in the name of helping Europe achieve its climate goals, encourage a corporate grab of critical resources in the global South - including minerals or land for large-scale renewables projects or reforestation projects.

The European Union has a long history of seeking to cast itself as the “good guy” on the global stage. A few years ago, European leaders were even suggesting they had found the secret to building a thriving, pacified, innovative and democratic society with a high standard of life, protective of human beings and of the environment, that was increasingly attractive to the rest of the world. One of the most illustrative reflections of this trend was Jeremy Rifkin’s 2004 book The European Dream. Since then, we have had the global financial crisis, the Greek crisis, the so-called refugee crisis, economic and political conflicts among EU countries, the rise of populist, authoritarian and oligarchic regimes in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere, Donald Trump, the increased assertion of China, Russia and others, Brexit, and the multiplication of neo-authoritarian regimes across the planet and in Europe itself, and the Covid pandemic… among other things. It would be difficult today to paint such a rosey picture of the old continent and its global standing. Nevertheless, it can be suspected that the core of this vision still remains vivid in the minds of EU leaders – its latest manifestation being the “Green Deal” formally announced in 2019 by in-coming Commission chief Ursula van der Leyden.

Of course, we know, or should know, that underneath Europe’s assertion of virtue lies a profound hypocrisy. The old continent has built a large share of its wealth at the expense of the global South, by taking possession of and exploiting both its natural resources and its people, first during the colonial era, then through the indirect domination of European corporations. Europe has little oil and few minerals. It had to get them from elsewhere, and in particular from its Southernmost neighbour, Africa. Wood, minerals, rubber, agricultural commodities such as palm oil, coffee, fruit or cocoa, oil, gas, etc. The list of natural resources extracted from Africa and the Global South over past decades and centuries is long, and this extraction also came with a heavy human (from slavery to forced labour), political and economic cost. European (and American) corporations were given free reign to satisfy the voracious direct and indirect needs of Western markets, while keeping most of the financial benefits for themselves and for a small clique of domestic leaders entrusted with maintaining the status quo. Ensuring that free access to African materials and resources would continue remained a political priority for European nations after decolonisation, even when it meant supporting coups against uncompromising leaders or shoring up authoritarian regimes.

This has been particularly true and evident in the strategic sector of energy. For decades, European oil companies such as Shell, Total and Eni have been plundering Africa’s resources, bringing havoc to communities and to the environment, and nurturing cosy relationships with the continent’s worst dictators. In a similar fashion, the European nuclear industry secured its supply of uranium, primarily from Niger, with the active support of the French government, which installed a regime of de facto “indirect rule” over the country.

It is not the subject of this report to go over this history in detail; it is, however, to suggest that this history is not over yet, and that – worse still – there are forces at work that would perpetuate and consolidate Europe’s grip on the Global South in the very name of one of its seemingly most “virtuous” policies - fighting climate change.

The dark side of Europe’s climate plans

European authorities and businesses are very keen these days to showcase their climate credentials, in contrast to other global powerhouses such as China, India, Russia or the United States. First and foremost among these credentials is the European Union’s achievement in reducing greenhouse gas emissions: -24% between 1990 and 2019, according to official figures, even though the block’s economy has grown by 60% over the same period. [1] This is over the EU’s initial objective of achieving 20% reduction by 2020 – which inspired it to raise its 2030 reduction target from -40 to -55%.

What’s not always mentioned in this context is that this reduction has primarily been achieved thanks to the outsourcing of emissions outside of Europe, chiefly to China. [2] In other words, European nations have only reduced their own (apparent) greenhouse emissions because they import more and more of the materials, goods and services they consume from elsewhere in the world. The main reason they might compare favourably to countries such as China or Brazil is because they have shifted the apparent responsibility for their own emissions to them. The fact that European leaders systematically omit to mention this “inconvenient truth” of their own does not bode well of the design and substance of their current political orientations.

Enters the European Green Deal. Announced at the end of 2019, it is a comprehensive set of policy instruments and initiatives across sectors (energy, industry, farming, finance, etc.) aiming to make Europe the “first carbon-neutral bloc” by 2050. The Green Deal is not just a matter of good intentions and declarations of principle: it is supposed to lead to sweeping regulation overhauls and to mobilise significant amounts of money to achieve its objectives. The Covid-19 pandemic – contrary to some expectations – has not led to a scaling-down of ambition in this regard. In fact, NextGeneration EU, the post-Covid €750bn recovery package approved by European nations in the summer of 2020 is supposed to be closely integrated with the Green Deal and its objectives. In other words, massive levels of public money will be spent in the coming years in Europe to boost renewable energy, make the continent’s industry and agriculture more sustainable, shift to ’green mobility’ through electricity and hydrogen. A fairy tale of climate voluntarism.

Except that the Green Deal does not entail any willingness to alter the bloc’s economic architecture or its priorities. It does not seek to curb the excessive influence of corporate interests at EU level, even though many major EU corporations are significant polluters and have been known to try and delay decisive climate action. It does not, for instance, really aim to loosen their grip on the energy sector in favour of a more decentralised and democratic energy system. Nor does it envisage a relaxation of Europe’s traditional prioritisation of the competitiveness and global standing of its corporate champions. On the contrary, the Green Deal seems largely built on the notion that injecting huge amounts of public money into the corporate sector will precisely help them both reduce their emissions and make themselves more sustainable (or at least seem so) and at the same time boost their competitiveness at global scale. It is a political wager that it is actually possible to address the climate emergency without changing much to the deep material structures of our societies and to an economic balance of power that favours corporations above all others.

Past and present experience – as described further below – suggests that such an approach will lead to significant risks of environmental abuse and/or violations of fundamental rights outside of Europe. In the name of decisive climate action (often a dubious and questionable version of what climate action should be), dangerous projects are sometimes being fast-tracked, and basic principles of promoting democracy and protecting fundamental rights are being sidelined or forgotten.

Thus, in spite of all the talk about transition, sustainability and a change of era, there is also a hidden continuity: Europe still relies on the forced extraction of natural resources from the global South. This is not (only) about commodities and oil any more: now it’s also about new minerals, wind, water and sun.

Material needs

It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore that most of the technologies Europe is relying upon to drive its green transition, such as solar panels, batteries or wind turbines, no matter how “light” and “low-impact” they might appear to the final consumer, actually require very material resources, in particular minerals.

We have heard a lot in recent years of China’s monopoly on so-called “rare earth” minerals, deemed critical to the energy transition. Other minerals are actually just as important in the current technological scenarios, particularly lithium, cobalt or nickel, as well as manganese, graphite or silver. Securing access to these minerals – the supply of which might get exhausted in just a few decades, if not years – appears therefore critical to Europe’s future and to the Green Deal strategy.

It would seem that, somehow, nothing ever really changes. Western powers have long been accused of plundering the global South for its mineral riches – first gold and silver, then copper, nickel, coal, iron and bauxite, later uranium – now lithium and cobalt. There is a real risk that Europe’s thirst for “transition minerals” - a term that is partly inaccurate, since some of today’s key minerals, such as nickel or copper, have been mined for a very long time for other industrial applications – might just result in perpetuating the domination of Western interests, now in competition with Chinese or Russian rivals, over the South’s resources.

Just like in the “olden” days, the extraction of cobalt, lithium or rare earth minerals is a cause of major environmental damage at local and regional level – mostly resulting from a massive use of water and from toxic discharges in water and in the air – as well as a source of GHG emissions at global level. It also comes with high risks of displacement, land grabbing, social conflicts, violence and corruption. The adverse impacts of the mining industry are well documented, and there’s unfortunately no reason that it should be any different with “transition minerals”. The corporate players are generally the same.

Worse still: there are good reasons to think that the extraction of these “transition minerals” might actually be more polluting and more emissions-intensive than was the case historically in the mining reasons. There are two reasons for this: the increased extraction pressures on those that are becoming highly strategic and/or the deposits of which seem about to be exhausted, and the fact that many of these minerals require heavier processing because of their relative scarcity. The process of extracting and processing the minerals necessary to our new “clean” technologies – because it is so (and increasingly) emissions-intensive – might actually cancel a part of their climate benefits. Electric cars are a good example, as numerous studies have shown that their production (but not of course, their use) is more carbon-intensive than that of conventional vehicles.

Do we need that many minerals?

This point that electric cars and renewable energy generation require massive amounts of minerals which are in turn a major source of pollution is increasingly used by opponents of an ambitious climate transition as an argument against radical change. It is one example of the pitfalls of the kind of corporate-driven climate transition that is now being pushed in Europe. To avoid falling into this trap, it can be noted that some of the minerals that today seem most sensitive from an environmental and human rights point of view – mainly cobalt and lithium – are essentially needed for the production of batteries, i.e. for the storage of green energy and first and foremost for electric cars. [3] Indeed, the hyper-focus on electric (and hydrogen) mobility instead of other policy priorities is clearly one of the most questionable aspects of the European Green Deal.

Furthermore, the current focus on strategic minerals is reinforced by a silent assumption which seems to underly all EU policies on these matters. Each time you read about the “climate transition” in a European document, or each time you hear about it from a European leader, it will likely be immediately followed by a reference to the “digital transition”. Similarly, a large part of the NextGeneration EU plan focuses on “digitalisation” both as an end in itself and as a contribution to the climate transition, because it is supposed to make labour and production more “efficient” in relative terms. It is almost as if both were considered equivalent. This is an argument that the Tech industry has been pushing for many years through lobbying and propaganda, disseminating the notion that somehow, switching from the material to the “immaterial” would magically reduce our impact on the environment. We should know by now that it is not the case at all, that tech devices and infrastructure actually require both a lot of electricity and a lot of minerals, and hence could actually worsen our impact on the global climate.

Apparently, our political leaders have never heard of these basic facts. Or perhaps they choose to ignore them for other reasons. The focus on “strategic minerals” in the name of the climate transition actually serves the interests of other corporate sectors as well, notably those of the digital sector, and perhaps also those of the arms industry – as the very same rare metals are increasingly being used in top-grade missile systems for instance. [4]

Europe’s conundrum

European leaders have long identified the problem of accessing strategic raw materials, and sought to address it through different strategies. One is to encourage recycling to recover minerals from discarded equipment and devices. This sounds promising in theory, but in reality there are material difficulties and we do not really have the technology to make recycling economically viable, or sometimes even possible, in the short term or the middle term.

A second response is to push for the (re-)opening of mines in Europe itself. Indeed, there has been a new wave of new mining projects on the old continent in recent years - not all of them relating to transition minerals (think of the since abandoned Rosia Montana silver and gold mining project in Romania). In most cases, however, these projects have not come very far. One reason is that they have faced a lot of opposition from local communities in Europe, mainly for fear of pollution. Officials have been quick to depict this resistance as a “NIMBY” reaction from populations who have grown unused to paying the price for their own comforts. But there are many examples throughout Europe of communities accepting pollution and its consequences when they see actual benefits in terms of jobs or wealth redistribution. The truth is, in most cases the mining projects were not worth the pain. The deposits are small, as are the profits to be made. With a few exceptions, Europe is a continent with little mineral resources. Through initiatives such as the Green Deal, it can (and does) pump up money and political support to relocalise in Europe some key nodes of the production chains, with the installation of factories to produce batteries or wind turbines, and perhaps in the future PV cells. But most of the raw materials will always come from elsewhere.

Lithium is an interesting example. At the moment, Europe imports 100% of this mineral. There are several projects to open new lithium mines in Europe, in Serbia by mining giant Rio Tinto, in France and Germany along the Rhine river (in geothermal deposits), in Portugal, in Austria and in Scandinavia. Most of the companies developing the mining projects are Australian or British-owned. It is not clear how big the deposits actually are, but already some of these projects are facing stiff local opposition. [5] Claims that mining companies operating in Europe will adopt higher environmental, social and governance standards than in the rest of the world are about to be thoroughly tested. [6]

The new ’Middle Easts’

But even in the most optimistic scenarios dreamed by the European industry, most of the transition minerals will have to come from outside the old continent. And if one takes a look at the distribution of known reserves of critical minerals around the planet, it is obvious that they are concentrated in certain countries and regions, some of which (like China and Russia) cannot be counted as a potential reliable source of supply for Europe. With the exception of Australia (itself increasingly turning into a supplier primarily of China, and secondly of the US), most other known reserves are located in countries of the global South. Most cobalt reserves are located in the Democratic Republic of Congo; most nickel reserves are in Indonesia; most lithium reserves are in the “triangle” formed by Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.

Of all these regions it has been suggested in one way or another that they would be at the centre of the next industrial age, just as the Middle East has been at the centre of the age of oil. If the parallel holds, it does not necessarily bode well for said countries in terms of democracy and human rights.

The African regions in which most cobalt deposits are located have been for many years a locus of conflict and corruption, with authoritarian regimes and armed groups using the revenues from mining to consolidate their power, while turning a blind eye to forced labour and environmental destruction. Investigations of cobalt supply chains by Amnesty international have repeatedly concluded that Western car and tech brands – including European carmakers Fiat, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler and Renault – failed to ensure transparency about their supply chain and to implement adequate measures to avoid abuse – in particular forced labour and child labour. [7]

The king of Morocco, key supplier of BMW
Morocco - much closer to Europe than the DRC – also has important reserves of cobalt. The country has the only primary cobalt mine in the world (elsewhere, cobalt is mined jointly with copper or nickel). The mine has become of bey supplier of an important European corporate player, carmaker BMW, which signed a €100m supply contract in 2020 – a period of intense repression of the journalists, civil society activists and citizens who dared question the king’s authority.
Managem is no ordinary private company. It is ultimately owned,through several layers of ownership, by Morocco’s royal family. Managem has its headquarters and trading office in Switzerland, in the infamous canton of Zug, and owns mostly gold and silver mines in Morocco and throughout the rest of Africa. [8]

In Chile and Bolivia (as well as in Mexico), the potential development of large-scale lithium mining threatens to exacerbate existing problems such as the over-use of scarce water resources at the expense of communities’ livelihoods – all this in the context of a long history of national governments aligning with by powerful mining corporations against indigenous peoples or opponents.

Surveys by the Business and Human Rights and Resource Centre [9] and by French association Sherpa (on a group of French firms, both miners and key clients) [10] suggest that most corporations do not have adequate policies and mechanisms in place to mitigate the human rights and environmental risks related to the extraction of transition minerals.

Regulations and policy mechanisms would need to be in place – both in the countries where the mines are located and in the home countries of the mining corporations or of their key clients, in this case in Europe - to prevent the environmental and human rights abuse that is likely to result from a rush towards mineral resources. Although there are potential policy developments which might play in that direction – such as the possible introduction by the European Union of a mandatory humans rights due diligence legislation -, the EU’s general international strategy remains focused on competitiveness and competition with China and other superpowers. This dominant orientation translates into trade or cooperation agreements where rights and environmental protection are at best secondary. The exploitation of transition resources is already “dirty” (in many senses) today; it is likely it will become even dirtier in the near future as competition increases and as the best deposits become depleted or more difficult to access.

The human rights impacts of Manganese extraction in South Africa
Manganese, although mostly used in the steel industry, is also a critical mineral for the production of wind turbines and batteries. About a third of global production comes from South Africa, followed by Australia and Gabon (where it is mined among others by French mining corporation Eramet, increasingly faced with Chinese and Indian competitors).
A recent report by ActionAid and Somo documents the many adverse impacts of manganese extraction in Northern South Africa, including abuse of women and girls, asbestos poisoning and tuberculosis, and labour exploitation. It also attempts to trace the source of the Manganese used by the Dutch industry – including in steelmaking and car manufacturing – and to what extent it can be linked to human rights violations in South Africa. Both NGOs conclude their research by advocating for a “strong, enforceable human rights due diligence legislation, which ... would cover the whole supply chain”. [11]
Neodymium in wind turbines
Neodymium is a rare-earth mineral mostly mined in China, which accounts for 90% of the global production. It is used, among others, for powerful magnets used in wind turbines such as those produced by Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy (SGRE) – a key European “champion” in this industry, which counts among its clients all the main energy corporations of the old continent. Neodyme extraction and processing is extremely dirty, involving radioactive materials, and is related to heavy air, soil and water pollution in Northern China. This environmental issue is nevertheless completely ignored in the “vigilance plans” that French corporations EDF and Engie - both clients of SGRE for their under-construction offshore wind parks. [12]

A destructive greenwashing rush

The risks of the European “transition” are not, however, just a matter of future threats in a handful of minerals-producing regions. A much more immediate danger is the way European corporations have been allowed, for a couple of decades and much more in the last few years, to greenwash themselves at the expense of the global South. From the point of view of consumers , climate greenwashing can be easily dismissed as a matter of marketing and just no buying into the corporate spin. But actually, it has very concrete, sometimes dramatic consequences on the ground.

One of the key policy tools to measure climate progress is metrics. The focus of European governments and corporations alike has been to enhance their public climate credentials through two kinds of metrics: first, reductions in overall GHG emissions, and second, increasing the share of “green sources” in their energy mix. Overall, they have had a natural tendency to prioritise appearance (looking green, ticking the boxes) over substance. There are ways to achieve apparent progress in climate action that are easier than others.

A first way is just to externalise the most polluting parts of their businesses – in other words outsource the “dirty” operations to subcontractors (preferably on other continents) or sell off one’s most “dirty” assets to other, less exposed firms. French energy corporation Engie provides a perfect example of this logic: following the signing of the Paris climate deal, it initiated a sweeping policy of divestment from coal – even though it had acquired most of the assets just a few years earlier -, which represented 15% of its energy mix (in terms of capacity). As of today, this figure stands at just below 4%. As a result, Engie can boast of having reduced its CO2 emissions by more than a quarter between 2017 and 2019. But this was mostly achieved through selling said assets to other firms of investors, who will continue to operate them for many years to come, perhaps adhering to even lower social and environmental standards. In other words, even though the climate benefits of this divestment policy are actually non-existent, Engie can boast of the sharp reduction of its own GHG emissions.

There has been a lot of focus in recent years on the social and labour aspects of an ambitious climate transition: what will happen to the thousands of workers previously employed in the fossil fuel industry and in the fossil-based energy sector, and how can we make sure they are not left behind? The concept of a “just transition” has been developed to address this key issue, in a context where most divestment or externalisation decisions by corporate management are top-down affairs, driven by PR or financial considerations.

A second strand of greenwashing is even more pernicious: the focus on “false solutions”. False solutions are technologies, products or processes designed by industry to (seem to) achieve quick climate gains, but which either do not allow for (or even are an obstacle to) long-term progress, which only shift CO2 emissions elsewhere in the overall production system, and/or create a range of other social and environmental problems. Indeed, false solutions are also a form of externalisation.

Europe’s gas rush

When it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, switching from coal to gas has often been seen in recent years as the “low hanging fruit” - an easy fix to achieve immediate progress, significantly reducing emissions over a relatively short period. Companies have sought to switch from coal-based to gas-based electricity, coal plants have been shut down and new gas plants opened. The only problem is that gas remains a fossil fuel, and that the switch to gas has often been a way to jeopardise or delay future progress in achieving long-term emissions reduction by locking in the use of another, allegedly “cleaner” fossil fuel for decades to come. Another aspect is that this focus on gas has often come together with a greater development of unconventional sources, such as fracked gas, which might actually be just as bad as coal in terms of overall greenhouse gas emissions because of methane leaks.

This was precisely the strategy elected by the oil industry – once it could not just simply deny the need to do something about climate change – and backed by the United States, which was seeking to cash in on its own fracking boom, and other gas-rich countries. And it has been actively endorsed by the European Commission, which has paved the way for the construction of LNG terminals and new giant pipelines across the old continent. This policy is still actively promoted today at least for the Eastern part of the bloc – which still needs to complete its shift away from coal – and gas projects might still, for this reason, and in spite of growing push-back from environmentalists and some Western governments, get funding from the EU Recovery plan. Growing gas demand in Europe results in increased pressures on gas-producing regions around the globe. Gas is less visible than oil, but it too can cause severe harm to humans and ecosystems. The environmental and social impacts of increased gas extraction have be widely documented, both in the countries that have been the traditional suppliers of Europe, such as Nigeria or Algeria, or in the fracked regions of the United States.

How Europe cozied up to Azerbaijan
Perhaps the most infamous aspect of Europe’s sudden love for gas has been the close relationships it has cultivated with Azerbaijan in recent years. In the name of reducing its dependence on Russia for gas and of reducing its carbon footprint by switching to an allegedly cleaner source of energy, European leaders in Brussels and several member states have brought heavy financial and political support to the development of Azerbaijan’s gas reserves and their transport to Europe through a 3500km-pipeline, the Southern Gas Corridor, which became operational at the very end of 2020. [13] Some of Europe’s largest corporations have been involved in the project alongside Azerbaijan’s national gas company Socar. To protect these business interests and in some cases because of corruption, European leaders have opted to turn a blind eye to the Azeri regime’s increasingly dismal record in terms of democracy and human rights.

Large dams

Another traditional form of electricity generation can be mentioned here briefly: large hydro. Building big dams is indeed a way to add significant new “green” capacity to a corporation’s energy mix. But it has also been throughout recent history a cause of massive populations displacements, conflicts, environmental destruction and corruption. It also seems that in tropical regions, dam reservoirs can turn into a significant source of methane emissions, threatening to cancel out their climate benefits. Today, in spite of being nominally “renewable”, large hydro is now generally excluded from most climate funding mechanisms. For all these reasons, building large dams seems to have somewhat gone out of fashion for most European energy companies. One of the most recent examples is Engie’s involvement in the Jirau dam, in the Brazilian Amazon, which became operational in 2016 and was again a locus of controversy and social upheaval. EDF, the other French energy giant, also become involved in Brazilian hydro projects in the 2010s, before the official plans for building a flurry of new dams in the Amazon (particularly around the Tapajós basin) were indefinitely postponed.


A third example of the kind of climate “false solution” prioritised by industry giants is agrofuels (fuels based on crops such as corn, sugar, palm oil or rapeseed oil) as a substitute or a complement to fossil fuels. Again, because switching partially to agrofuels does not involve any major difficulty and does not require a massive overhaul of production systems, this was a solution that was prioritised very early on by corporations and political leaders alike. Policies were put in place in Europe and the United States to encourage a swift uptake of agrofuels. Unfortunately, it soon appeared that the agrofuel rush was having unintended consequences. First and foremost was the issue of changing land use: in order to be able to grow more lucrative energy corps, farmers and industrialists were either replacing traditional food crops or developing new land that was previously grass or forests. Because that same land was generally used by traditional communities as a source of livelihood, this process has also, more often than not, resulted in displacements, land grabbing and violation of basic rights. On top of that, most changes in land use itself resulted in significant GHG emissions, cancelling all the nominal benefits of moving away from fossil fuels. The switch from food crops to energy crops added pressure on food systems and was one of the factors behind the massive increase in food prices – which resulted in some places in food riots – at the end of the 2000s.

Because of all that, Europe has tended to scale down its support for agrofuels in recent years. But there are still new projects popping up which might have the same adverse impacts. Oil giant Total, for instance, decided a few years ago to transform one of its old oil refineries in La Mède, in the South of France, into a “biorefinery”. Part of the agrofuel produced there was supposed to derive from palm oil. In spite of Total’s assurances that all that palm oil would be properly certified, environmentalists and legislators alike found there was a strong risk that Total’s sourcing of palm oil would contribute to deforestation and biodiversity loss in countries such as Indonesia.

There is a strong chance that all the current talk about “renewable” gas – i.e. gas derived from anaerobic digestion of organic matter – would result in exactly the same problems as the agrofuels hype of the past decades. Growing biomass for biomethane in quantities large enough to replace at least partly fossil gas would put immense pressure on current land use in Europe and also the rest of the world, with the same adverse consequences for communities, for food systems and for overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Compensation and forestation projects

There are even more insidious ways in which the greenwashing drive has affected the global South. The international community, led by Western governments, made a far-reaching decision, dating back to the 1997 Kyoto protocol, to address the climate crisis mostly through “market-based solutions” such as carbon markets and offsets. The general principle is simple: Western nations and Western corporations were allowed to continue emitting large amounts of greenhouse gas, as long as they could “buy” the right to do so in different ways – including, critically, from “green” projects in the global South claiming to reduce or avoid emissions, to protect forests, and/or to create new “carbon sinks” that would keep CO2 out of the atmosphere. Concretely, a corporation - an airline or an oil giant, say – either develops its own green project or, in most cases, pays another, specialised company that has developed green projects in order to generate and sell “carbon credits”. The emissions that are thus reduced or avoided are supposed to “compensate” those that these same corporations are still actually responsible for, and which they don’t have to reduce, or not that much.

Needless to say, this has created a huge corporate demand for such projects, and, unsurprisingly, most of them are located in the global South. There are several reasons for this. For one, it is where most of the world’s remaining primary forests are located. Second, most of these countries are developing new infrastructure or new electricity generation capacity, and it makes sense to encourage them to prioritise a greener form of development rather than resort to coal plants for instance. There is less new infrastructure and new generation capacity being built in Europe itself. Unfortunately, however, the main reason is that it is just much easier for corporations and their partners to develop projects that fit their needs with as little inconvenience as possible. In a lot of cases, they get easy access to land or forest areas and claim either that they are unused (displacing or fencing off the traditional communities that depend on them for their livelihoods) or that they will provide local communities with jobs, new livelihoods or development opportunities. In other words, a lot of carbon compensation projects involve some kind of land grabbing or social re-engineering at the expense of traditional communities (who may not have land rights). This is not to suggest that all compensation projects are bad and that there cannot be important differences in the way they are designed and developed and how they include local populations. It remains, however, that they are always developed primarily for corporations, in the context of a large imbalance of power, where local, traditional communities often have little recognised rights and few ways to have them enforced. This creates a huge potential for abuse.

Indeed, there is now a long corpus of civil society, media and academic reports documenting the flaws of carbon projects, both in terms of land grabbing and violations of the rights of local populations, but also in their actual climate benefits. A recent report by Greenpeace on an Indonesian project used by Shell and Volkswagen to “offset” the emissions of their products challenges the claims of its promoters that it helps preserve the rainforest and store CO2 in the long term, suggesting that deforestation has merely been shifted elsewhere and that there is no guarantee that the forest will still be standing in coming decades. The report also documents land conflicts with local villagers. [14]

This is all the more worrying that today, most large corporation’s current plans to reach “zero net emissions” in the future rely to a large extent on various forms of carbon compensation. Oil majors such as Shell, Total and Eni have all recently announced huge plans for massive plantations of trees – again, mostly in Africa – to offset the emissions of their fossil fuel products and reach “net zero”. Total, for instance, has pledged to invest no less than €100m a year to fund such “carbon sinks”. Concretely, it means that oil giants would take possession of thousands of hectares of land in countries such as Mozambique, DRC or Congo for “reforestation”. If these plans ever materialise, it would likely result in land grabbing on a massive scale, and it is hard to imagine how it could not have a huge social and human cost. And again, there are reasons to doubt whether such reforestation initiatives can have lasting benefits to reduce overall GHG emissions, especially as Total and its peers envisages these reforestation projects as profitable ventures, in other words plantations rather than conservation projects. [15]

The dark side of renewable energy

Renewable energy relies on a virtually inextinguishable supply of sun or wind, and it generates electricity without any greenhouse gas emissions and without having to resort to compensation or carbon sinks. That does not mean, however, that renewable energy production has no impact or that those impacts can be ignored. We have talked in a previous section of the minerals that were critical to current solar and wind energy technologies, and of the human rights and environmental risks associated with their extraction. Unfortunately, this is not the only problem.

As the development of large-scale solar and wind electricity production accelerates around the world, there are growing reports of conflicts with local communities around access to land and to resources such as water. Just like reforestation or agrofuels, renewable energy projects require space – a lot of it. They can disrupt livelihoods and traditional activities, especially the kind of large-scale project that is favoured by corporate giants. When a Western corporation develops a massive solar or wind project in India, Mexico or North Africa, it is – yet again – in a context of imbalance of power between them of local communities. Worse still: the good image of renewable energy and the need for ambitious and rapid climate progress can become an excuse to fast-track projects or give even less consideration to other social and environmental impacts

North Africa has become a location of choice for many European corporations seeking to produce or source renewable energy. There has even been talk in the past of massive solar projects whose electricity would be directly exported to Europe through huge high-tension lines (sometimes known as the Desertec project). These plans have been temporarily abandoned, but could be revived in the future, particularly if combined with hydrogen production (see box). Several of these new wind or solar projects have been developed in Morocco and/or in partnership with the Moroccan royal family, including the Noor solar project and the Gafsa solar project in Tunisia. Another similar project is the Tunur solar park in Tunisia, developed with British and Maltese capital. These solar projects, based on CSP technology can create problems around their use of scarce water resources and their occupation of land previously used for other purposes. Also worth mentioning in this context is the Tarfaya and Foum el Oued Wind complexes in Morocco, developed with Engie and Siemens, which is located in the Western Sahara region currently claimed and occupied by Morocco, in conflict with the independentist Saharawi movement.

The geopolitics of green hydrogen
There has been a lot of hype in recent months in Europe about hydrogen. It features high in the priority list of many national recovery plans under NextGenerationEU, and an hydrogen IPCEI initiative is being launched that will provide for even more public funding for hydrogen projects. These plans raise many questions, particularly as it could contribute to locking in the use of hydrogen based on fossil fuels (with or without carbon capture). But even so-called “green hydrogen”, i.e. hydrogen produced with renewable-generated electricity, can become problematic. There are now plans to develop massive wind and solar farms especially dedicated to the production and then export of hydrogen. Such plans have been developed in Chile, but also much closer to Europe: in North Africa, where there are already export-focused renewable projects in development. Lobby group Hydrogen Europe has unveiled a plan, the “2x40 GW Green Hydrogen Initative”, which has already been endorsed by the Commission and which involves creating a 40GW production capacity in Europe itself and equivalent capacity in neighbouring countries, including Ukraine and North Africa. Corporate Europe Observatory, Food and Water Europe and ReCommon explain in a recent report that “for North Africa and Ukraine, this would mean by 2030 ’7.5 GW hydrogen production for the domestic market and a 32.5 GW hydrogen production capacity for export’ to the EU, with three times as much coming from North Africa as Ukraine. Not by coincidence, industry has sought authoritarian regimes with which to broker deals that will keep these regions exploited to serve the EU energy model.” [16]

A survey by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center of global wind and solar producers suggests that none of them has robust policies in place to prevent and address potential violations of human rights and environmental abuse. It also confirms that the question of land rights is crucial in this context.

A similar point could be made about European financial institutions (private or public) that fund wind and solar projects around the globe – motivated in part, just like corporations, by the urge to green their own energy mix and increase the share of renewables in their investment and funding portfolio. In the name of climate action, other aspects of the projects – land rights, depletion of natural resources, democracy – can become secondary.

Human Rights violations around Wind Developments in Mexico
The Tehuantepec isthmus, in the Oaxaca state of Mexico, is one of the world’s windiest regions and has been targeted by the global energy industry as a prime location for massive wind farms that are mostly there to power the factories of Western corporations and their suppliers in the country. Spanish, German and French companies such as Iberdrola, Acciona, Siemens and EDF are particularly present in the area. The wind farms are strongly opposed by the local indigenous population, who claim their rights were ignored and their land taken from them in the name of a corporate-led energy transition. French state-owned company EDF has been sued by local communities and NGOs under the “duty of vigilance” law for failing to respect its obligation of seeking “fair, prior and informed consent” from indigenous communities.
There have been similar allegations of land rights abuse and environmental damage with large-scale solar projects in the country, including some developed by French company Engie. [17]
Total, renewable energy and land conflicts in India
Another part of the world where land conflicts around renewable energy projects are becoming more frequent is India. There, the accelerated development of wind and solar projects does not come at the expense of fossil fuel projects, but in parallel to them or as a way to somehow “offset”them. Most projects are developed by national companies such as Suzlon or Adani, in a country where land conflicts around development projects, especially in minority areas, were already widespread. But Western companies are eager to partner with them. Total recently agreed to acquire for €2.1bn 20% of Adani Green Energy and 50% of its solar portfolio - which includes several contested projects. [18] The immediate benefit for Total is to green its overall energy mix, allowing it to continue fossil fuel developments in parallel. Total and Adani also have a partnership on gas.

In addition to the rights violations and conflicts that can occur at local level around new large-scale projects, the wind and (particularly) solar industry are not immune either to issues of labour rights in their supply chain, as has been recently highlighted in relation to forced labour in the Xinjiang region of China (see box).

Uyghur forced labour in solar supply chains
The issue of forced labour in the Uyghur region of China has come to the fore in recent years and become a key issue of corporate responsibility and accountability for many Western brands which have some of their production located or outsourced in the region. Corporations in industries such as tech, textile, garment or car manufacturing have been targeted for their failure to address the risk of forced labour in their supply chain, in a context where Chinese authorities are accused of deploying large-scale forced labour, displacements, re-education and internments against the Muslim population of Xinjiang. The solar energy industry is also affected. According to a recent report by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, “ 95% of solar modules rely on one primary material – solar-grade polysilicon, and polysilicon manufacturers in the Uyghur Region account for approximately 45% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon supply”. The clients of those manufacturers include EU-based companies such as Enel, Engie, Acciona and Iberdrola, which have pledged to reinforce their measures to prevent any risk of forced labour in their supply chain in Xinjiang. [19]

How Europe’s “transition” could boost abuse and authoritarianism, and finding another way

In many ways, the current public discussion in Europe about accessing critical minerals for the transition hides the actual and much more violent fight that is currently being waged in the name of climate action. It is a fight for a much more obvious resource: land. Whether it is for locating large-scale wind or solar (or dams), for producing biomass for agrofuels, for sourcing critical minerals or for planting trees, land remains the key. European corporations, challenged to contribute to climate goals and encouraged by government initiatives, have embarked on a large-scale quest for land, that has become crucial to improve their climate credentials without having to implement radical changes to their operations and their business models. Through this process of “green grabbing”, the global South and its communities often bear the brunt of the climate transition, as envisaged by Western corporations and governments. The European Green Deal, in spite of all its ambition, still largely ignores the issue. Therefore there is a strong chance that it could contribute to making it worse.

This orientation comes at a heavy political cost for Europe. In the name of securing access to land and resources, European leaders are forced to court or ally with authoritarian regimes, sometimes actually giving them active support (eg. Azerbaijan in the name of gas), or at least to turn a blind eye to abuse or discrimination against minorities or traditional communities. In spite of corporate Europe’s claims to virtue and responsibility, their involvement mostly contribute to reinforcing the status quo and existing imbalances of power in the countries where they operate. Often, they actually either shore up authoritarian regimes on which they are dependent, in regions such as North Africa or central Asia, or are forced to rely on a repressive state apparatus to protect their interests against local communities. They contribute to reinforcing historical processes of expropriation and displacement of traditional communities in the name of development – even when it is now dubbed green development. In other words, because they are dependent on land and resources outside of Europe, they are actively undermining what they are supposed to (or claiming to) stand for on the global stage: democracy, freedoms and the protection of fundamental rights.

Michelin and the repression of dissidents
French tyre company Michelin has come under fire from environmentalists and farmers movement La Via Campesina for events surrounding a rubber plantation it owns 47% of in the islands of Sumatra and Bornéo, in Indonesia. A local union leader was arrested in 2020 for protesting against the company and its partners for “land grabbing”. The plantation, presented as a “natural rubber plantation” by Michelin, receives green funds from several international organisations and investors (including French bank BNP Paribas) under the “Tropical Landscapes Finance Facility”, as a contribution to reforestation. But civil society organisation Mighty Earth claims that it actually contributed to covering up deforestation in the area. This case has a particular resonance because Michelin has a long history of repressing dissidents around its plantations in Asia, including during the infamous repression in 1930 of the workers’ revolt in the Phú Riềng plantation in Vietnam. [20]

This hypocrisy and this contradiction are at the core of many European policies, including now its climate policy and the Green Deal. On the one hand, they claim to pursue ideals of climate justice, protection and democracy for all; on the other hand, it systematically prioritises corporate interests throughout its actual policies, including through free trade agreements and new policy mechanisms such as the “raw materials initiative”.

Does this mean that all of Europe’s climate policy and the Green Deal are necessarily worthless, neocolonial enterprises? That we cannot address the urgency of the climate transition without inflicting even more damage on the rest of the world and on the planet. That is probably what some in corporate circles would like us to believe. The need for climate action is routinely used as an argument to forge ahead with controversial projects and technologies, such as the opening of new mines in Europe or a new wave of nuclear energy development, not matter the costs for people and the environment and how dubious their actual benefits are.

Fortunately, that’s not quite the end of the story. Europe’s growing need for land and for minerals stems in large part from the kind of “climate solutions” advocated by corporate champions: electrification of transport, hydrogen etc. This focus on corporate technological fixes comes at the expense of other climate solutions – structural changes in housing, social organisation, mobility and industrial processes – that could be more local and more effective. Reducing the need for cars, for instance, instead of just switching from conventional to electric cars. Or reducing energy demand instead of just subsidising the private sector to build more and more large-scale wind and solar farms. Unfortunately, these solutions often seem more difficult to implement from a political perspective, because they could affect entrenched interests, including corporate interests.

In the mean time, Europe should also address the need for strong accountability mechanisms for corporations, through legal instruments such as the proposed directive on mandatory human rights due diligence and the proposed UN Treaty on Business and Human Rights. Not only are European companies still able to escape responsibility for the human and environmental damage and the violations of fundamental rights they have historically caused or facilitated both in and outside of Europe. Today, in the name of the urgency of climate action, they sometimes seem to pay even less consideration than before to all their other impacts on the environment and on local communities, and more generally on fundamental rights and on the promotion of democratic societies.

A corporate driven climate transition is a transition that is focused on technological fixes and that addresses climate as an isolated, technical issues, that could be solved without taking into account the wider natural, human, social and political environment. That could be a recipe for disaster.

Article published as part of our investigation: «European Multinationals and Authoritarian Regimes»
More about our investigation