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Solar's Dirty Secret Comes Back To Light
China's worrying slavery stance threatens to derail the renewable revolution.
Solar power is fantastic. Not only is it one of the lowest carbon forms of energy, but it is the easiest to integrate into our daily lives and by far the cheapest form of energy ever! Make no mistake, solar is the best piece of climate technology we have, and the future is far brighter because of it. But we are going about it all wrong. The entire solar industry depends on one country, and that country is using slaves to build solar panels. Not only does this pose a significant moral problem, but it also threatens to derail the entire renewables revolution.
I have covered this topic before (click here for that article), but let’s quickly recap the situation. The UK, US, Canada, and the Netherlands have all accused China of committing genocide against the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim, Turkic ethnic group native to Xinjiang in Northwest China. Not only that, there is significant evidence that China is doing mass sterilisation of Uyghur women, separating Uyghur children from their families, prohibiting religious practises in the region, destroying their culture through “vocational training centres”, and forcing the Uyghur people into forced labour (also known as slavery).
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Sadly, the Chinese solar power industry is mainly set up in the Xinjiang region. In fact, the world’s largest solar panel manufacturers (LONGi, Trina, and Jinko) have their factories there. So far, only one of these companies (Jinko) has been able to provide evidence that it doesn’t use Uyghur slaves in its factories. As such, it is highly likely that two of them do use slavery. To make matters worse, these three factories accounted for a third of US solar panel imports.
On June 11th, 2022, the US banned imports from Xinjiang unless they could prove that every step of their manufacturing process, all the way down to the mining of raw materials, didn’t use slave labour. This caused a pile-up of solar panels at ports and months of delayed shipments. Luckily, after a few months, China had restructured so that only non-Xinjiang solar panels were going to the US, and Xinjiang-produced ones were going to countries that didn’t have similar sanctions. This reorganising has meant that these US sanctions have mostly left the solar industry unaffected, but sadly, that also means they are doing very little to help the Uyghur slaves.
However, this might only be the case briefly, as this issue is now moving out of the market and into international legislation. Let me explain.
The UN has been pushing its flagship climate fund for a while now and is getting close to finalising it. There are already several green projects approved by the UN under this banner. But China recently opposed six of them. Why? Well, they aren’t happy that the documentation mentioned the risk of forced labour in the manufacturing of solar panels. Luckily, this didn’t stop the projects, which included helping vulnerable communities in Sierra Leone, Benin, and Laos cope with the impact of climate change, as they were eventually approved following a majority vote despite China’s objections.
This is the smoking gun that all but confirms the Xinjiang solar factories are using Uyghur slaves. It also means this issue is moving into the UN sphere, which is a huge problem.
In 2022, China manufactured 80% of the world’s solar panels. Solar is also by far the fastest-growing renewable energy source. In 2020, the global solar capacity grew by an astonishing 22.3%, and that trend has continued. In short, the globe relies on solar to meet its net-zero targets, and the solar industry is heavily dependent on China.
The UN is the body which enacted the Paris Agreement, which states we must reach net-zero by 2050 and was signed by 196 countries, including China. The UN can also enforce massive international sanctions, which are far more crippling than those imposed by a single country. The UN does this very rarely, but on the occasions it has, it has been to crack down on slavery and human trafficking.
As such, the UN is in a massive dilemma. It could put sanctions on China for its actions in Xinjiang. But, if they did that, it would massively disrupt the solar industry, stalling its expansion and risking us missing net-zero by 2050. Or, they can turn a blind eye and let the Chinese solar sector expand, helping us meet net-zero in time but also making the world culpable for modern slavery. Which route do you choose?
This is an impossible trolley dilemma situation, but there is a third and far more appealing option. Western solar industry expansion.
There are almost no major solar panel manufacturers in the West. Our solar projects rely on imports from the East. That is despite us having the expertise, manufacturing capability and personnel to produce them ourselves. Why? This approach meant we could minimise the amount we invested in solar technology by utilising cheaper labour and manufacturing in the East, whilst still benefiting from solar technology.
This has enabled us to get more solar capacity per dollar, but it has some significant blind sides. We have covered the slavery issue, but there are others. Investment in solar technology and manufacturing profits are going to a foreign economy. This means we are being short-changed, and our economy is missing out on one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. Instead, it makes a lot of sense to make solar manufacturing domestic, so this money stays within our economy, creating more, better-paying jobs. This dependence on China for our energy infrastructure also weakens our security. China could effectively blackmail us by withholding solar exports and, in doing so, kneecap our energy infrastructure. As tensions between NATO and China heat up over Taiwan and the South China Sea, this fact becomes ever more worrying.
So yes, China and the solar power industry have a significant slavery problem, and it could cause massive issues for international politics and the climate movement going forward. But there is a straightforward, effective and hugely beneficial solution: bolster domestic solar panel production and break reliance on Chinese solar. This is easier said than done, but if we want to save the planet with a clean conscience, it is necessary.
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