The actions of the Chinese government in recent years should shock us all. The Chinese Communist Party is committing a genocide against Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. It has flagrantly tossed aside basic liberties such as freedom of the press in Hong Kong, in favour of an authoritarian crackdown on protest and free speech.
Beijing also makes frequent threats to the sovereignty of Taiwan and pressures governments around the world into side-lining it. And the violations of democracy and human rights abuses don’t stop there. In that context, it is profoundly worrying that a key tenet of government policy seems to be reliant on Chinese imports. Specifically, energy policy.
The government is keen to make Britain more energy secure – a valiant goal – but it is also pursuing its target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. That means it is determined to shift Britain from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
In order to achieve that, there seems to be a flood of new ‘solar farm’ projects popping up across the UK, where enormous chunks of land are dedicated to solar and covered with solar panels. There are plenty of problems with this, not least the fact that many of these solar panels seem to be imported from China.
If the aim is to reduce the environmental footprint of the UK’s energy production, is shipping solar panels halfway across the world from China really the right way to go about it? This problem is especially stark given the fact that the Chinese government does not share Britain’s net-zero ambitions. In fact, China is investing in fossil fuels by opening new coal power plants.
As if the obvious environmental flaws were not bad enough, it now turns out that forced labour and slavery from the genocide and oppression in the Xinjiang region might be contributing to the production of these solar panels.
A report from an Australian body called the Clean Energy Council issued a dramatic warning when it revealed that slave labour may have been used in mineral extraction and manufacturing in China, Africa and South America, which can be a key part of the solar production process.
The Clean Energy Council report contained a raft of damning details about the millions of detained Uyghur and Kazakh people who seem to be forced to work on producing much of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon, amidst coercion, internment and so-called re-education programs put on by the Chinese government.
Nonetheless, solar farms continue to pop up at pace. Construction recently began on the UK’s largest solar farm project, dubbed Project Fortress and located at Cleve Hill near Faversham in Kent, covering a whopping 890 acres of countryside.
Similarly, a ‘key archaeological site’ in Bramley and Silchester, near Basingstoke in Hampshire, is set to become the location of a 210-acre solar farm project which will include its own battery park, 16 transformer stations which will tower at 10 feet high, and around 7 kilometres of security fencing around it.
Upsettingly, while all manner of horrors take place in the supply chain for these solar panels, many people seem content and enthusiastic to continue insisting we deploy them in Britain at every opportunity without a second thought about the consequences for vulnerable people elsewhere in the world.
Perhaps, in future, we would do well to think about the consequences of our actions when making key policy decisions. Rather than committing to sweeping, all-encompassing policy directions like the mass adoption of renewable energy in the short term without thinking about what that means in practice, we should instead make sure we are building Britain’s energy security on solid foundations.
That should start with a thorough rethink of our approach to solar farms like the one in Bramley and Silchester.
Jason Reed is a writer and broadcaster on politics and policy for a wide range of outlets.