The European Union’s climate goals, especially the target of climate neutrality by 2050, necessitate a substantial increase in renewable energy. According to the European Commission, by 2050, electricity will constitute approximately 50% of the final energy demand in the EU, and 80% of this electricity will be coming from renewables.
In 2019, this figure stood at 34%, with wind and hydropower each accounting for 35% and solar for 13%, with the remainder made up by solid biofuels and other renewable sources, with solar power being the source that has had the most rapid growth. However, as the European Commission has said, the solar capacity of the EU needs to increase to five times its current amount by 2030 for the EU to be able to meet its interim climate target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 55% below 1990 levels by 2030, before reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
While the EU has long been a leader in the wind industry, with European companies still spearheading the manufacturing of turbines, nearly every solar panel that is sold in the EU originates from the Chinese region of Xinjiang. This place of origin is not only problematic in terms of its implications for the potential geopolitical power China may be able to hold as reliance on solar power increases, as it is projected to do so. It also is a significant issue due to the “re-education” campaign led by the Chinese state against the predominantly Muslim population of Xinjiang, with the concerns specifically over forced labor camps for Muslim minorities in China, such as the Uighurs.
Though the United States has already put into place sanctions against goods originating from the Xinjiang province, such as cotton, the EU has been hesitant to follow its lead. Indeed, the European Commission has mostly shied away from implementing trade measures against China, despite the European Parliament calling for it to place trade bans on companies in any industry if they are involved in human rights abuses, like those argued to be taking place in Xinjiang.
While the solar panels themselves are mostly not produced in Xinjiang itself, the province plays a disproportionately large role in producing polysilicon, which is then used to produce photovoltaic cells. As the head of solar analysis at BloombergNEF has said, “Nearly every silicon-based solar module — at least 95 percent of the market — is likely to have some Xinjiang silicon.” In the past year, according to another analyst, polysilicon from Xinjiang constituted approximately 45% of the world’s supply of solar-grade polysilicon.
Despite there being a very high chance of a single solar panel having at least some material from Xinjiang, it is difficult to trace which ones are tied to the forced labour camps due to how the polysilicon produced in Xinjiang is taken to factories where it is mixed with polysilicon produced in other regions.
As Milan Nitzschke, the president of an EU solar businesses group, EU ProSun has argued, “Everybody knows what’s going on in China, and when facilities are based there you have to accept that there’s a high possibility that forced labour will be used.”
Several different solutions have been proposed to address this issue, with one being to continue to allow in parts containing polysilicon from China with the condition that polysilicon from Xinjiang not be added to the mixture blended in factories. However, the critics of the approach argue that this would simply lead to Xinjiang polysilicon being used in the Chinese market while the EU and the US get the non-Xinjiang polysilicon, not improving the situation of those in the forced labour camps.
Others have been pushing for simply producing such solar components in the EU itself, essentially repatriating the industry. Perhaps not very shockingly, European manufacturers have been at the forefront of this argument, saying tariffs should be used if needed. As Nitzschke has stated, “We can’t have a level playing field if there’s ethical leakage, and you could prevent it by applying tariffs to products that don’t meet our standards,” in arguing that imported goods should be held to the same standards as their counterparts produced within the EU when it comes to human rights and forced labour. Other industry groups, such as Solar Power Europe, do not agree with implementing such tariffs, saying that it will be harm, not help, the growth of solar power in the EU.
The European Commission is in the process of crafting a new instrument to deal with violations of labour as well as climate laws—due diligence legislation—but many maintain that this is insufficient. This due diligence legislation would hold EU companies accountable for violations committed by their suppliers. However, its critics, such as some Members of the European Parliament, are pushing for the Commission to put into place tougher measures in circumstances as serious as the one in Xinjiang. They argue that an import ban should be implemented on products that have links to “severe human rights violations.”
As an MEP from the Greens, Anna Cavazzini, has put it, “Expanding the use of renewables is of utmost importance in order to stop the climate crisis. But it cannot come at the cost of human rights.”