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Renewable Energy as a Human Right

knowyourrights.jpgThe World Renewable Energy Assembly 2005 (WREA) just finished up in Bonn, Germany, and one of the documents emerging from the conference is something called "The Human Right to Renewable Energy." It's a communique that manages to be both awkward and inspiring, as its old-style 20th century activist prose doesn't quite match some of the document's more provocative and forward-looking ideas. The communique captures the transition now underway for global environmentalism, the shift from demanding a cessation of problems to encouraging the development of solutions.

Follow the link to read the text of the communique. It's brief, just about 700 words, and raises some very interesting issues even as it rallies against traditional environmental bugbears.

In the spirit of focusing on solutions rather than problems, I'd like to explore a bit several concepts raised by the communique that I think merit greater consideration: a "Renewable Energy Proliferation Protocol;" micro-finance for renewable energy in the developing world; and the concept of renewable energy as a human right.

• The Renewable Energy Proliferation Protocol: Among the proposals emerging from the WREA is an addition to the existing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Article IV. The NPT currently calls on nuclear nations to supply technical aid to non-nuclear states for the development of nuclear energy. The proposed addition would call on signatory nations to fulfill this obligation through the provision of renewable energy technologies instead, thereby further reducing the possibility of nuclear weapon proliferation.

The NPT currently seems to be one of those international treaties considered by some nations to be "quaint;" adding a line suggesting that nations give renewable energy technologies rather than nuclear power tech strikes me as very much a window-dressing idea.

However, I was intrigued by the concept of a stand-alone Renewable Energy Proliferation Protocol (not addressed in the WREA discussion, as far as I can tell). Many international treaties fall into the "don't do this" category -- don't emit cholorfluorocarbons, don't dump waste in the oceans, don't pass out nukes to your buddies, etc.. The treaties that call on signatory nations to do something positive or pro-active are less visible, but arguably more fundamentally important -- the standardization of telecommunication protocols, the hotline agreements, the "open skies" treaty, and so forth. (For a full list of treaties the United States is signatory to, see this page at the US Department of State -- commenters, please feel free to add links to similar pages for other countries.)

Imagine a Renewable Energy Proliferation Treaty (REPT) that required the signatory nations to provide renewable energy technologies to other nations. The underlying mechanism could take a number of forms, from structured markets to out-and-out obligations. The version most likely to generate support would be one that provided rewards for proliferation; unfortunately, the most reasonable rewards are credits against CO2 emission limits, which drops us back into the Kyoto scenario.

Arguably, the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Treaty is something of a Renewable Energy Proliferation agreement. This makes me wonder: how would the CDM have worked if it applied to all other countries, not just developing nations? Transfer the renewable systems and tech to any other country, and you can choose between getting financial rewards or REPT credits. Better still, imagine if you could get credits against non-carbon costs for renewable proliferation -- how long would it take the US to pay down its foreign debt by transferring renewable energy systems?

• Micro-finance for Renewable Energy: One of the appealing aspects of many renewable energy technologies is that they can be deployed in a distributed fashion. There's no such thing as a distributed coal-fired power plant; conversely, solar and, to a lesser extent, wind and micro-hydro work quite well spread out among a multitude of users. (There are efficiency issues with distributed power, which is why centralized power won out a century ago; some/many of these issues are mitigated with smart networks, which is why utilities and regulators are looking again at distributed power.)

It can make sense, then, for micro-finance to support the deployment of renewable power systems, both for home energy generation and for energy entrepreneurs. There are myriad forms the latter could take, from village utilities to quick-recharge points for mobile devices. Indeed, as fuel prices climb back up and diesel generators (standard in villages around the world) become more expensive to operate, micro-power vendors could become commonplace.

Imagine this as a mash-up of the Grameen Village Phone and the Barefoot Solar Engineers.

• Renewable Energy as a Human Right: Now for the heart of the matter.

At first blush, many of us would probably dismiss the concept of renewable energy as a human right; after all, most of the broadly-acknowledged human rights concern issues of social treatment, not access to technology. Free speech as a human right yes, free TV as a human right no.

But not all human rights are expressions of community relations. Most people would recognize access to clean water and shelter as human rights, and while the provision of these definitely has a social aspect, they are fundamentally issues of (for lack of a better term) infrastructure. As it's essentially impossible to be a participant in the global society, economy and culture without energy, typically electricity, it starts to make sense to argue that access to energy would rank with water and shelter.

Once we've taken that logical step, it's not far to renewables.

Arguably, a fundamental aspect of human rights is that they are -- or should be -- inherently available to all people, and not subject to control or limitation by others. Even water, which is typically provided as a utility service for a fee in much of the world, fits when we consider rainfall as a free resource. (There are many reasons why that doesn't work in much of the world, of course.)

If this is the case, then access to energy limited by both political/market control and issues of geology makes for a weak right. Renewable power, which needs just the initial generation device such as the wind turbine, or solar panel, or stirling engine, makes for a stronger form of the right. Not perfect, but better than a right to energy meaning ongoing access to diesel or coal power.

This is mostly a thought exercise; we're unlikely to see access to renewable energy added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights any time soon. Still, thinking about energy and renewables in the context of human rights forces one to engage with the question of what should be fundamentally available to every person on the planet in the 21st century. One could argue with some justification, for example, that modern human rights should include access to information, even access to the Internet. Others may wish to add control over one's own biology, including ownership of one's genome.

Perhaps someday, soon, we'll be discussing the adoption of a fundamental human right of universal access to a nanofactory.

Comments (12)


Here's an idea for making automobiles more efficient by using thermoelectric elements to capture waste heat for re-use:


Could be a useful way to improve energy efficiency and gas mileage, especially in connection with hybrid-electric vehicles.


Jamais, you are fusing great things here! Indeed, imagine small communally owned energy plantations in Africa, with local energy entrepreneurs managing the feedstocks in a certain region, using their cellphones to distribute excess feedstocks, and all this supported by microfinance institutions... sounds like a super combination of simple technologies.
Given that in many developing countries, up to 70% of rural communities have no access to electricity, which in turn leads to problems in delivering health care, education, communication, etc..., access to energy should definitely be on the development agenda.
Of course, there are some networks out there trying to create precisely this kind of fusion of elements, such as, most notably the
:: Global Village Energy Partnership: http://www.gvep.org/
:: ENDA: http://www.energia.org/afr_fp.html
:: Rural Energy Development Programme: http://www.redp.org.np/

Also the German development cooperation agency has been very active in this sector for years.

We need more of it. Not only is it a human right, it even makes sense!


As an Indian Energy & Environment Expert, the topics greatly touch me. Developing and poor countries need a paradigm shift in policy and actions to move from centralised to decentralised actions since majority still virtually remain marginalised in these countries due to lack of opportunities whatsoever that ultimately disturb the very development process due to migration etc. and they can only be enabled and brought into the National Mainstreams by developing this sector locally. RE are therefore having great potential to achieve this, to turn the marginalised social majority into a booming organised sector for ultimate prosperity of such Nations.

Good grief. Renewable energy is important, certainly, but calling it a human right is either making energy too important or debasing the other aspects of human rights.

Do I have a human right to a nice hot cup of tea?

Renewable energy a human right? I think that is putting the issue upside down, renewable energy is a human duty. Individuals should take responsibility for their own energy needs. A clean, distributed energy future (often featured here at WC) starts with individuals and communities taking responsibility for generating energy locally.
Framing renewable energy as a right drives this responsibility away from the individual. For that reason alone I think it harmful to do so.

But... not having a nice hot cup of tea doesn't force you to use nasty cups of tea that pollute the air and severely damage the environment for future generations. I think the real question is, how many people can the planet sustain who are living "pre-industrially", i.e. without modern energy supply? Short of adopting a hunter-gatherer lifestyle - which certainly wouldn't support a large amount of people here now - you'd have to fall back on burning loads of wood I guess. And what's left of the world's forests wouldn't stand up to much of that from a large amount of people.

The more I think it through, the more renewable energy supply does seem like a right, given the current world situation. Some people can live dignified lives without it, but nowhere near 6+ billion. I guess this stops it shy of being a universal human right... but where is the line drawn?


Renewable energy is not a human right but is a necessary prerequisite for the sustainability of plant and animal species on the planet. We have already overshot the ecological sustainability of the planet and, therefore, must cut back on our demands on the planet's resoruces, which includes not just energy. Population must radically decrease and demand on resoures must decrease.

It is the other species that must be granted the rights of existance. The human species, as we know it, is a threat to their continued existance.


Mentally, I've tended to divide rights up into two sets: enforceable-rights-you-can-depend-on and pleasant-platitudes. The two sets are identical in their definition, except that pleasant platitudes are those rights that someone says you have but when that right is violated, nobody is willing to help you. So real, enforceable rights always define some relationship between the holder and the rest of the community, who must step up and enforce the right when it's violated--property rights are really an agreement between me and society that say "in disputes over this spot of turf, we-the-community have got your back. In return you've got to pay taxes, obey the laws, and be prepared to defend us all from enemies, etc etc etc." If nobody has your back, it's just a platitude, a nice thought.

So when I add that understanding to your thought experiment, it makes it more interesting to me: how would the community support this granted right? One hopes we could do better than we have done with clean water, shelter, food, and other rights that have somewhat spotty enforcement (depending on where you live).

Adding renewables to the list of unenforced platitudes is not very interesting at all, however. It sounds nice but it doesn't end up meaning anything.

Adam Burke:

Next on Worldchanging: justifying carbon credits by demonstrating Amory Lovins is supported by The Mandate Of Heaven.

I was thinking more along the lines of plug-in hybrids as a historical imperative.

andrew chambers:

By including energy as a basic human right you are able to shift the focus towards pro-active change. Whilst the bar is set at food, water and housing then human rights campaigns in the developing world accept that agrarian subsistance is a decent standard of living.
It is common sense to upgrade our notion of basic rights as the world develops. Citizens in the UK would regard access to electricty as a basic right for them, along with a right to free education, free speech, free healthcare....etc
That's not to say that suddenly "human rights" should be expanded to include all the luxuries of the rich - merely that the bar should be raised a little higher than absolute subsistance. By including energy as a basic human right, the human rights movement has the potential to become a true agent for significant reform and development in the developing world. We have seen with the rapid growth of Japan post war, the rise of the tiger economies in South East Asia in the 1980s and the current growth of China that the best way for a nation to rise from poverty, and increase the standard of living for their residents is through economic growth. For this, universal access to energy is essential.

“The right not to be excluded from access has gained currency in recent decades in the wake of the civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental movements. (…) Similarly, the right to clean air and water and a healthy environment (…) ‘is coming to be regarded as a property from which nobody should be excluded’.”

Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access


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