The Solar Industry and Climate Advocates Can't Wish Chinese Human Rights Abuses Away

To quit Xinjiang, solar may need to quit China

The Solar Industry and Climate Advocates Can't Wish Chinese Human Rights Abuses Away

The accelerating commercialization of solar energy is a technological revolution unfolding before our eyes. After a decade of dramatic cost improvements and a surge in deployed solar capacity worldwide, the technology is bringing much-needed hope to a low-carbon energy transition still struggling to make headway.

But hope for the future cannot blind us to injustice in the present. Two major hurdles remain.

First, in their enthusiastic pursuit of greater affordability and efficiencies of scale, solar industry actors have not sufficiently questioned a deepening connection between Chinese manufacturers and inhumane government and corporate practices in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where much of China’s solar manufacturing capacity operates. Now that human rights issues in Xinjiang have increasingly come to light, many energy experts and industry groups are nevertheless advocating for restraint, arguing that ongoing efforts to reshuffle solar supply chains within China can resolve ethical concerns.

Second, climate advocates and policymakers have refrained from speaking out, consumed with the urgency of climate action and constrained by the Chinese government’s intolerance of opposition.

You can’t fix what you can’t talk about. And if the climate community still can’t even talk meaningfully about Xinjiang, then it’s time to stop pretending the solar supply chain problem is anywhere close to being solved.

Reforming China’s solar manufacturing sector from within would require international stakeholders to conduct bold negotiations that explicitly prioritize human rights—a resolve that has remained conspicuously absent. At any rate, a dialogue-based approach with Chinese stakeholders is unlikely to accomplish meaningful progress in the first place.

It is therefore time for the global solar industry to accept that—if it is truly committed to ethically sourcing solar equipment—it will be easier to just go all-in on building new large-scale manufacturing capacity outside of China. And the climate community should affirm that more expensive solar modules are a small price the world ought to gladly pay in the name of environmental justice.

Why supply chain tracking won't stop abuse in Xinjiang

Much of the global solar supply chain starts in Xinjiang, where a network of coal and quartz rock mines, coal-fired power plants, metallurgical silicon smelters, and solar-grade polysilicon producers dot the land. Relentlessly persecuted by state authorities, local Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz peoples can neither oppose this ecosystem of vast and dirty industrial parks, nor resist enrollment into government-sponsored forced labor programs that have compelled them into hard labor at these same mines, power plants, and factories.

“The Xinjiang region of China, where much of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon is produced, has come under increased scrutiny owing to allegations of forced labour,” a recent Nature paper admits. Yet apart from this single sentence, the study professes nothing but effusive support for the Chinese solar industry’s role in bringing solar module prices down, while warning that efforts to reorganize the solar supply chain could make solar panels more expensive again. To allay any ethical concerns, the authors add that, when it comes to criticism, “the solar industry has responded with proposed traceability protocols, which if effective could obviate the need to onshore production for ethical reasons. Further work is needed on the feasibility of such protocols.”

It is true that the Solar Energy Industries Association, the influential trade group of the U.S. solar industry, has published guidance and recommendations for tracing manufactured solar commodities throughout the solar supply chain. But the first and only version of SEIA’s protocol, released in April 2021, is already hopelessly out of date. A company following the document verbatim would likely find itself in non-compliance with the United States’ Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act for having failed to prepare adequate supplier documentation for the quartz rock used to manufacture imported panels. Despite this notable omission, which has created massive headaches for U.S. solar equipment importers for months, SEIA has yet to revise its initial published version.

More importantly, SEIA’s tracing guidance concerns itself solely with avoiding individual shipments of commodities manufactured in Xinjiang. If a Chinese firm operates factories both within and outside the Xinjiang region, SEIA’s protocol considers a shipment originating from the factory outside Xinjiang to be fair game—even though the supplying firm is still profiting from its Xinjiang-based operations. In this way, importers are neglecting the ways in which complicity in human rights abuses is associated with the supplier itself, not a given shipment of product.

And all of this is assuming that companies can even ensure accurate supply chain tracing in the first place—a real leap of faith given Beijing’s tight control over access to Xinjiang, increasing political pressure on third-party auditing firms in China, and potentially sizeable financial incentives to fraudulently label Xinjiang-produced goods as Xinjiang-free. Given such information gaps, if the solar sector remains determined to make only minimal tweaks to the existing supply chain, then it is implicitly prioritizing low-cost products over ethical due diligence.

Current solar shipment tracing protocols stake a conservative position that keeps costs low for internationally imported solar equipment and accepts imperfect information and high accounting margins of error. This system sacrifices much of the benefit a tracing protocol is supposed to bring.

Consider the case of JinkoSolar, for instance. It is the world’s second-largest solar equipment manufacturer, and operates a relatively modest (<4 gigawatts/year) monocrystalline silicon ingot and wafer factory in Xinjiang’s Künas County that has accepted Uyghur laborers via government forced labor programs.

A truly ambitious supply chain protocol would shun the entirety of the ~65 gigawatts/year of solar PV commodities that JinkoSolar produces each year until the company reforms its labor practices at its Künas County plant and consents to regular third-party auditing to confirm the changes. Instead, JinkoSolar modules remain widely exported internationally. Both a SEIA member and a SEIA Forced Labor Prevention Pledge signatory, JinkoSolar’s stock rating was even recently upgraded by financial analysts projecting its future growth.

SEIA nonetheless points to its inadequate product tracing protocol and to its symbolic labor rights pledge as evidence that supply chains are magically moving in the right direction, even as forced labor programs in Xinjiang continue to separate Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz workers from their families and force them into greuling toil, all under the constant threat of detention in the region’s enormous network of prison camps.

Certainly, even a much more aggressive effort to separate the solar supply chain from Xinjiang couldn’t solve every problem overnight. But the solar industry at least owes its victims an effective plan for change and for punishing wrongdoers, by threatening real economic consequences for state-run labor programs and the businesses that participate in them.

China won't reform itself

The appeal of low-cost Chinese solar modules is superficially understandable. Certainly, the most efficient pathway toward true environmental and social justice for Xinjiang and affordable, mass-produced solar PV commodities for global markets would involve close partnership with Chinese industry and commitments from the Chinese government to resolve human rights issues. After all, it makes far more sense to reform and utilize China’s vast existing solar manufacturing capacity rather than expend considerable resources to build a new solar supply chain elsewhere.

But that kind of partnership is lacking. In practice, the Western solar sector has shown little interest in even trying. Pursuit of a true balance between human rights and affordable solar modules for climate action would require far bolder industry action than supply chain tracking. Namely, international firms would have to conduct frank, direct negotiations with Chinese companies and government officials, backed by a credible threat that global customers will look elsewhere for solar modules if needed, cost be damned. They would need to openly challenge their peers to improve their human rights record, demand access to Xinjiang-based factories, and insist upon corporate and government transparency.

But trying to reform the existing system from within in this way is likely a fool’s errand. This is because attempts to work with the existing Chinese political-economic establishment to change it from within will encounter formidable barriers—namely the strong opposing incentives constraining every key set of Chinese stakeholders.

The first factor is political. In attracting the Chinese solar manufacturing sector to Xinjiang, provincial and national officials have effectively tied China’s solar industry to one of China’s most taboo political issues: human rights. For most of the key corporate stakeholders across the China-based solar supply chain, conversation about human rights concerns in Xinjiang would be unimaginable.

In contrast, the Chinese Communist Party possesses the sweeping authority needed to reform industry across Xinjiang overnight if it wished. But with Beijing’s leadership having designated criticism of its Xinjiang-related policies as one of the key “bottom lines” in Chinese foreign affairs, a mere mention of human rights concerns would likely terminate most conversations with government officials instantaneously. After all, for officials to open the door to accountability for China’s human rights abuses could expose the Party to broader judgment for its past and ongoing authoritarian excesses, threatening its very grip on national power.

Because the national government has taken a hard stance on denying human rights abuses in Xinjiang, solar PV manufacturing firms in China face pressure to echo official narratives. For such companies, acknowledging and reacting to forced labor concerns in Xinjiang could damage their political standing and trigger legal consequences, potentially threatening many of the key forms of state-directed industrial support they enjoy. As such, major solar manufacturers in China have largely parroted state spokespeople, dismissing human rights concerns as fabricated “sabotage”.

The second set of factors is capitalistic. From both industry and the government’s perspective, solar PV commodities are a valuable growth sector. The International Energy Agency recently reported that over the past five years, exported solar PV products accounted for a full 7% of China’s total trade surplus.

If downstream customers demand products that can be certified as Xinjiang-free, China-based companies are certainly willing to accommodate such requests. Ostensibly Xinjiang-free commodities, after all, may even command a higher price from buyers who wish to signal their commitments to social responsibility. But that is the likely limit to Chinese firms’ accommodation of heightened human rights scrutiny. Nor will Chinese manufacturers feel particularly motivated to support international efforts to diversify away from Xinjiang-based production by helping their competitors set up alternative industrial plants overseas.

Perhaps most disappointingly of all, the traditional strongholds of moral accountability in the mainstream climate movement—environmental NGOs, climate writers, and journalists—have shown reluctance to exert pressure on human rights issues in Xinjiang. While many climate advocates and writers have argued that international stakeholders can secure climate cooperation with the Chinese government while simultaneously maintaining outspoken support of human rights causes, solar supply chain concerns are proving that argument wrong.

Famed international environmental NGOs like Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, or Friends of the Earth have built their brand by advocating fiercely for victims of environmental injustice across the world—except in China, where they avoid controversy in order to protect their organizations’ local offices, staff, and political relationships. Even many writers and environmental organizations with no interests in China to protect call for deepening “climate cooperation” with Chinese leaders, directly invoking China’s vast solar and battery manufacturing capacity while tacitly omitting any mention of associated ethical supply chain concerns.

Such approaches betray the ideals of climate justice and leave Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang unchallenged. Without the climate advocacy movement holding industry and governments accountable, it will remain difficult to build momentum to reform clean energy supply chains.

To make solar part of a just energy transition, we need to diversify its supply chain.

Given such obstacles inside and outside of China inhibiting reforms, the alternative approach of making large investments in new solar manufacturing capacity outside China no longer seems so impractical after all.

Few developments abroad could more powerfully incentivize Beijing policymakers to reverse their oppressive governance of Xinjiang than serious new investments by foreign markets into alternative solar, metal, and battery factories in North America, India, or Europe, motivated by ethical concerns in Xinjiang. Such a strong stance could even give pause to other Chinese industries contemplating a shift to Xinjiang.

A new wave of solar manufacturing projects globally is far from a preposterous idea. The solar PV sector will continue to grow considerably over this decade, and manufacturers from the U.S. to India are already ambitiously seeking to capture more of this expanding market. Since the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, manufacturers have announced at least 17 new solar equipment factories in the U.S. with a combined output of 75 gigawatts—equivalent to just over a quarter of global solar PV deployment in 2022. In an industry where technology is progressing rapidly and factory equipment becomes obsolescent within several years, there is no reason to stop competing with major Chinese solar firms to produce the most cutting-edge PV modules of tomorrow.

Certainly, as the paper in Nature warns, efforts to disentangle solar supply chains from Chinese manufacturers could perhaps induce a temporary increase in solar equipment prices. But the authors’ own findings suggest that a counterfactual manufacturing landscape with production based in North America or Europe would only set progress on the solar cost curve back by a couple of years. And if solar manufacturers cannot deliver the absolute lowest equipment costs possible while still adhering to basic social and environmental standards, then perhaps the hard work of bringing solar panel costs down is not yet truly complete.

Meanwhile, it is time for progressive policymakers and climate groups to reexamine their approach towards China. Or at least become consistent in their approach to human rights. In other domains, the climate movement has rightly mobilized to guard against the possibility that climate efforts might crush disenfranchised communities and fragile ecosystems. While upholding the importance of swift climate action, climate leaders have asserted that decarbonization must unfold in a fair and just manner.

If “climate cooperation” simply means prioritizing China’s vast exports of cheap solar PV cells and battery packs, then the halting response to unethical solar manufacturing in Xinjiang unequivocally demonstrates that such cooperation has meant abandonment of human rights advocacy. By shackling its crimes against humanity in Xinjiang to solar energy and enforcing a taboo on Xinjiang-related conversations as a precondition to engagement on climate topics, it would seem that the Chinese Communist Party has successfully muzzled the international climate movement. This reality ought to rattle the long-incoherent, long-symbolic consensus among climate advocates that climate cooperation with Beijing is the unquestioned key to a more just and sustainable future.

In the case of solar panels, continued silence demonstrates fealty to an unjust status quo. Chinese industry and government are unlikely to adjust their approach in Xinjiang, while foreign stakeholders are unwilling to show the courage necessary to demand true systematic change.

This inaction in turn exposes solar technologies to political attack, giving renewable energy opponents ammunition to further stall clean energy progress. Given this dynamic, climate hawks need a coherent strategy to reform the solar supply chain.

The most efficient path to responsibly producing all the solar modules and battery packs the world will need will be to establish new large-scale manufacturing capacity outside of China. If for the next few years solar modules cost a little more, or if solar farms take a little longer to build, those should be consequences that, in principle, the climate and renewable energy coalitions should not hesitate to accept.