Human rights and the World Bank’s energy policy

15 February 2010 | Guest comment

If the World Bank is a global inter-governmental institution devoted to reducing poverty, then its global duty should be to focus on achieving energy access for the poor, and certainly for the most vulnerable amongst the poor.

Considering energy policy from a human rights perspective means that we examine human rights problems faced by poor or marginal communities – health, development, education, water, sanitation, productivity, etc. – to determine what sorts of energy answers they will need to realise their rights. This profoundly alters the way we approach energy policy development.

A human rights approach would include orienting the World Bank’s energy policy towards guaranteeing equity in the provision and accessibility of services, non-discrimination in terms of access to energy grids, and would also give proper attention to ensuring that the most vulnerable groups do not suffer a disproportionate burden of environmental degradation and contamination, resulting from dirty energy.

Further, a human rights perspective should help guarantee certain procedural dimensions of the Bank’s energy policy, ensuring access to information about energy policy and investment choices is available to the most vulnerable groups so that participation in the development of policy is guaranteed and effective remedies are in place where violations can occur.

Equity of access: the World Bank’s energy policy should be heavily engaged in rebalancing energy equity in favour of developing countries, poorer communities, and particularly climate vulnerable communities. A greater portion, in some cases all, of the costs should be absorbed by industrialised countries.

Prioritising connections for vulnerable groups and those without: human rights criteria should help inform energy investment choices, providing grants and low cost financing to those communities that need energy most. The World Bank should begin with such communities, before it finances less urgent cases.

Progressive pricing: while in general, dirty energy should be more expensive than renewable energy, concessions should be considered for the most vulnerable groups, so as not to cause human rights violations to those that have no alternatives.

Consumption vs production: the human rights impacts of energy infrastructure and use are greater for the basic energy needs of local households, especially for low-income households, than for productive processes. The energy consumption of low income households should take priority over other uses and remain economically accessible.

Investments in mass-energy production vs. social and environmental impacts: in the past, large World Bank energy infrastructure projects have been rather limited in their consideration of social and environmental impacts – such as displacement, damage to ecosystems, etc. – while Bank  policy and mechanisms to address these impacts have been limited in their effectiveness. Deeper consideration of trade-offs between such investments and resulting human rights violations, as well as human rights impacts assessments and policy analysis from a victim’s perspective, are needed before further such projects should be considered.

Energy solutions for public institutions: the World Bank can be a source of renewable energy solutions for key public institutions and infrastructure, particularly those providing key services, such as public hospitals and schools.

Adaptation funding: a human rights approach would encourage and prioritise climate adaptation funding for climate vulnerable communities.

Mitigation funding: industrialised countries and the World Bank should make investment choices between renewables and fossil fuels more attractive for developing countries by absorbing incremental costs through grants. This is part of the historical environmental debt owed by industrialised countries to developing countries.

Energy policy innovations: availability of renewable energy, and particularly energy self-sufficiency can be extremely relevant to human rights realisation. For example, more energy efficient cookstoves now exist which lower smoke emissions and sequester black carbon, improving health. Such multifaceted approaches to development needs, which provide cheaper, cleaner and more reliable energy while contributing to lowering climate change problems, are precisely the sorts of projects the World Bank should foster on a large scale, acting as catalyst to more sustainable solutions to development problems.

As an institution mandated to reduce poverty, the World Bank must consider human rights realisation in poor communities as central to its energy policy. A first step is for the World Bank to consider its energy policy from a victim’s perspective, and not from a market perspective. The Bank’s top priority should be resolving energy accessibility for the poor, in an equitable, safe, and sustainable manner.

Romina Picolotti is Argentina’s former Environment Secretary. Jorge Daniel Taillant co-founded the Center for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA), and heads Soluciones Sustenables, a sustainable development advisory group.