Opinion: How modern slavery threatens climate efforts

Opinion: How modern slavery threatens climate efforts

Opinion: How modern slavery threatens climate efforts

Image: Haze following forest fires in Riau, Indonesia. Photo by: Aulia Erlangga / CIFOR / CC BY-NC-ND

In response to the urgent need for climate action, many countries are implementing policies and legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The U.K., the country with the most ambitious climate change law, intends to reduce emissions by 78% from 1990 levels by 2035. Even the world’s first- and second-largest greenhouse emitters, China and the U.S., have committed to cooperating with each other and other countries to combat climate change.

As necessary as these environmental policies and partnerships are to tackle the climate crisis, they do not address the world’s third-largest carbon emitter, which operates outside of the legal market: modern slavery.

If slavery were a country, it would only be medium-sized, with the population of Algeria and the gross domestic product of Bulgaria, yet it would be the third-largest carbon emitter — at 2.54 billion tons — after China and the U.S. Many of us are unaware of modern slavery’s contribution to climate change, and thus fail to properly combat it.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre has become increasingly concerned about misperceptions of the relationship between climate change and displacement that can negatively impact policy outcomes.

This is concerning when you consider that approximately 40% of deforestation is carried out by workers subjected to modern slavery in places such as the Amazon and the Sumatran rainforests. The Sundarbans mangrove forest, a massive carbon sink and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the site of highly polluting shrimp harvesting practices and illegal deforestation associated with modern slavery.

This illustrates that we cannot tackle modern slavery through climate change targets designed with legal institutions in mind. Modern slavery has also been shown to subsidize highly polluting brick-making practices in countries like India, Cambodia, and Bangladesh, as well as gold mining in places like Ghana.

Modern slavery, however, is not only contributing to climate change and environmental degradation; the reverse is also true. Whether it be sudden displacement following a natural disaster or gradual migration due to compounding factors, climate change is exacerbating vulnerable individuals’ susceptibility to trafficking. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 17.2 million people, or 41.6% of internally displaced people registered by the UN Refugee Agency in 2018, were displaced in the context of climate change and/or natural disasters.

Another way that climate change is enabling modern slavery is seen in Cambodia’s brick kiln industry. Workers bound by debt bondage in the brick kiln industry in Cambodia have become further indebted because of the unpredictability and intensity of rainfall caused by climate change.

Brick production is paused when it rains, but workers are barred by the kiln owners — who leverage their debts against them — from finding another source of income, forcing people to borrow even more money to meet their needs. Workers are thus further indebted — increasing their hours on the kiln.

One obvious solution to combating climate change is increasing the uptake of renewable technologies. So evident is this solution that next to the Climate Clock’s countdown is a “count up” called the renewable “lifeline.” This count up represents the percentage of the world’s energy being powered by renewable energy sources. The very renewable energy technologies needed for a successful transition to a zero-carbon economy, however, are at risk of being tainted by modern slavery along various points of the supply chain.

At the extraction level, for example, there have been several reports of forced labor in the cobalt industry — a critical element in the creation of alternative energy technology — in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

According to the International Labour Organization, cobalt mining can be considered one of the worst forms of child labor because of the extreme levels of precarity. Children are subjected to physical — and sometimes even psychological and sexual — abuse; work long hours underwater, underground, or in restricted spaces; and are exposed to dangerous toxins, among other things.

At the manufacturing level, recent evidence shows forced labor is tainting the supply chain of solar panels. This is because polysilicon is used in 95% of solar panel models and 45% of the world’s supply comes from the Uyghur Region, which has been linked to state-sponsored forced labor.

Modern slavery in the supply chains of green technologies is not just an issue found in lower-income countries.

At the operation level of supply chains, there were recent allegations of non-EU citizens working in conditions described as “effectively slave labor” by Liam Wilson, an inspector at the International Transport Workers’ Federation. They were working aboard a vessel owned by Subsea 7, a Luxembourgish company in the offshore energy industry, for the Beatrice Offshore Wind Farm project operated by SSE, a multinational energy company headquartered in Scotland.

Sustainably and effectively addressing this challenge before the time runs out requires unconventional partnerships that attack the problem through the lens of the vulnerability of individuals, the demand that drives exploitation, and the enabling environment that permits the illegal market to operate with impunity.

Leveraging the power of the environmental and human rights movements only brings more resources to the anti-slavery movement, but could make the environmental movement considerably more effective as well. A convergence of the movements would look like:

1. Increasing awareness of the environment-slavery nexus. The environmental movement has historically seen modern slavery as a separate domain. To end both, this mindset needs to change.Modern slavery … is not only contributing to climate change and environmental degradation; the reverse is also true.

2. Supporting research and scaling interventions to address the links between modern slavery, climate change, and the environment. The University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab is one of the few leading voices researching the dimensions of the environment-slavery nexus. Greater investment in this area of research is necessary, but insufficient. With time running out to meaningfully address climate change, solutions need to be iterative as more research deepens.

3. Adequately enforcing international and national laws against modern slavery and related crimes. Researchers Kevin Bales and Benjamin Sovacool point out that the abolition of slavery is a jus cogens legal standard within international law. This means that the enforcement of abolition is required of all countries at all times, and should be enforced in a similar commitment as genocide — also a jus cogens standard.

4. Developing a carbon credit that finances freedom. The cost of freeing 40 million slaves is approximately $20 billion over a period of 10 to 20 years. This may sound like a large figure, but it’s only the annual cost of running one nuclear power plant, such as this one in Turkey.

Creating adequate and appropriate employment for survivors of slavery can be one cost-effective solution. Bales proposes that survivors could have the option of being employed to replant the natural areas they have been previously forced to exploit and destroy. This cost could be financed through carbon credits based on the replanted forest’s carbon sequestration.

As both the modern slavery and climate crises continue to worsen, so too will their nexus. To have any hope of ending either, it’s clear that solutions must be developed that address both as the symbiotic issues that they are. While this presents a challenge, it also represents an opportunity for the climate and modern slavery movements to work together and leverage each other’s strengths to advance both missions.

Read the article on Devex here.

Na’Shantéa Miller is strategy associate at the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery and is completing the Master in Public Policy program at Harvard University, with a specialization in business and government. With this degree, she hopes to gain the skills to incentivize more meaningful community and corporate initiatives as sustainable solutions to social problems.