The switch to renewable, green energy is vital to preserving our environment and preventing further climate change. However, renewable energy projects have negative social and even environmental implications that often aren’t recognized in decisions made by the mostly Western governments and energy companies sponsoring these projects. Of course, renewable energy is far better for the environment than fossil fuels, but why should we perpetuate the same societal injustices when switching to new forms of energy?

The expansion of renewable energy in the West has led to unethical labor practices and environmental damage in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Researchers investigating renewable technology supply chains in the DRC found the use of toxic pollution, child labor, biodiversity loss and subjugation of ethnic minorities in these areas. A primary resource mined in the DRC is cobalt, a critical resource for renewable energies like wind power and even electric vehicles. However, 30 percent of this cobalt is mined by women and children who sneak into mines to fund their livelihoods because of widespread poverty and a gender wage gap. Furthermore, lithium extraction to produce lithium batteries, another key renewable resource, has affected local habitats and freshwater access, particularly impacting Indigenous communities. The exploitative labor in places like the DRC often go ignored by Western media and the people and governments advocating for green energy. The poor labor practices and environmental damage in the DRC are funding renewable energy projects in the West, but rarely in the places where the labor is being performed. We cannot justify these labor practices just because we’re the ones benefiting from them.

Fifty percent of the DRC does not have electricity, yet the Congolese population is performing nearly all of the labor to provide new forms of electricity to the West and other developed nations. The dominance of the West has historically led to dangerous and exploitative outsourced labor performed by impoverished and vulnerable populations. Climate change solutions are the perfect place for a global effort to be enacted and for this cycle to be broken. If the West can use its power to ensure renewable energies are shared with the rest of the world, then climate solutions can be experienced equally and their environmental effects will be even more powerful.

Renewable energy projects take up large plots of land, often displacing local and Indigenous communities, primarily in developing, impoverished countries. For example, wind farms require at least 60 acres of land per megawatt of energy produced. When you consider the energy needs of our modern world, wind and solar energy will require a significant amount of land, displacing many local communities from their homes and causing environmental destruction. An increased demand for wind energy has led to deforestation in the Amazon basin. This has created a sort of “green paradox” in which renewable energy is actually promoting other forms of environmental damage.

Renewable technologies also produce a significant amount of hazardous electronic waste or e-waste. Many of today’s solar panels are expected to expire by 2050, which will produce 78 million metric tons of waste. Improperly disposed or recycled e-waste is hazardous and often releases toxins into the environment. Not only does this waste contribute to environmental damage, but much of this e-waste is processed in countries in Africa and Asia where toxic pollution fuels public health crises. E-waste is fueling further environmental injustice and disproportionately impacting impoverished, developing areas and people of color.

Historically, primarily white and wealthy communities have been able to invest in infrastructure that more readily upholds environmental safety while marginalized communities are exploited as places where waste is dumped, highways and industrial warehouses are built and natural resources are destroyed. As seen with last year’s train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, environmental safety is not prioritized in impoverished communities. After this incident, action was delayed and community members’ demands and calls for urgency were disregarded and downplayed. Renewable energy gives us the chance to restructure our infrastructure choices to support environmental justice and change the historical injustices that have become normalized.

While renewable energy is making huge strides for the environment, there are still issues to figure out and social consequences to consider. Renewable energy needs to ensure sustainability and reduce further environmental damage. The benefits of renewable energy should not be exclusive to Western countries or come at the expense of other countries perpetuating global and national environmental injustices and discrimination. Governments need to invest in ethically sourced renewable energies and for global institutions to ensure equal access to these resources through legislation and global climate restoration efforts. If the United States does pass a Green New Deal, it must include stipulations about ethical labor practices and investments in renewable energies where this labor is done. As we change the way we impact the Earth and mitigate years of climate change, we also have the opportunity to change historically accepted power dynamics and economic structures. Allowing the same exploitation and inequities to continue would be short-sighted and unsustainable.

Antonia Kladias is a sophomore majoring in biochemistry and is Pipe Dream’s Opinions Intern.