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How Will Tokyo’s Solar Panel Mandate Handle Allegations of Forced Labor in China?

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How Will Tokyo’s Solar Panel Mandate Handle Allegations of Forced Labor in China?

Tokyo’s metropolitan government is requiring new construction to use solar panels, but the industry’s reliance on parts from Xinjiang poses a thorny moral dilemma.

How Will Tokyo’s Solar Panel Mandate Handle Allegations of Forced Labor in China?
Credit: Depositphotos

On September 9, the Tokyo metropolitan government unveiled a new policy requiring home builders and developers to install solar panels on new buildings and houses starting from the spring of 2025. Not all new houses and buildings will face the requirement, which applies to houses and buildings with total floor space of less than 2,000 square meters. Houses with roof space of less than 20 square meters will be exempt. About 50 major Japanese companies are expected to be impacted by the new requirements.

This is the first time a Japanese city had adopted a mandate for solar panel installation. In announcing the new policy, Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko said, “To realize decarbonization, it is essential to spread awareness among the people of Tokyo.” She added, “I hope this will be a turning point in history that will make people say, ‘Tokyo has changed.’”

The obligation to install solar panels on new buildings in Tokyo is a critical policy decision for Japan’s goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, given the fact that an estimated 70 percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from air conditioning, hot water supplies, and electrical lighting within buildings. To date, solar power equipment has not been widely installed on buildings in the city.

Mandatory installation of solar panels to buildings in Tokyo would also be helpful for ensuring a more stable energy supply. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has accelerated his energy policy since the Russia-Ukraine War. Japan plans to reduce reliance on Russian energy, and in that context the Tokyo solar panel mandate could help enhance Japan’s energy security.

The installation of solar panels helps residents save money on energy costs in the long run. Nonetheless, it is not customers but developers that are obliged to install solar panels on new buildings in Tokyo. In order to minimize the installation cost, developers may want to purchase inexpensive and imported solar panels, and they may look to China.

Solar panels made in China were once thought to be low quality compared to the ones made in Japan, but now Chinese solar panel manufactures produce high-quality products and export them to Japan and all over the world. And even if Chinese companies are not making the finished product, they export necessary building blocks around the world. According to the revised version of “Special Report on Solar PV Global Supply Chain” published in August 2022 by the International Energy Agency (IEA), China produces almost 95 percent of polysilicon, ingot, and wafer components used in solar panels. “The world will almost completely rely on China for the supply of key building blocks for solar panel production through 2025,” the report found.

Given that context, Koike needs to clearly explain a plan for ensuring that solar panels for new buildings in Tokyo are not tainted by human rights violations, especially forced labor in China. Last year, researchers of Sheffield Hallam University reported that some 45 percent of the world’s supply of polysilicon, a key component of solar panels, was made in the Xinjiang region of China, the product of forced labor by Uyghur Muslims.

On September 9, the Tokyo metropolitan government explained in a Q&A regarding the obligation of solar panel installation that some developers told the government that they do not use solar panels made in Xinjiang. Nevertheless, the answer is not sufficient to assure people in Tokyo that solar panels required for new houses are not made by forced labor. Ultimately, Koike is responsible for a much clearer explanation and is expected to guarantee that the Tokyo solar panel mandate will not be complicit in forced labor in Xinjiang.

In the United States, a bipartisan bill, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), was signed into law by President Joe Biden in December 2021, in order to ban imports of goods produced by forced labor. The UFLPA, which came into effect in June 2022, is unique in that it assumes that any goods produced in Xinjiang involved forced labor, unless the company can prove otherwise. Solar panels and component parts are a key area of focus for implementation of the law, given Xinjiang’s large role in the industry.

Marti Flacks, director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), pointed out that it is important for other countries to initiate similar restrictions in order to effectively stop the forced labor. Japan as a key U.S. ally should enact similar legislation; otherwise the solar boom portended by Tokyo’s solar panel mandate would only worsen forced labor in Xinjiang.

The U.S. government argued in this year’s human rights report that acts of “genocide” against Muslim people in the region had been committed, although Beijing criticized Washington, calling the report “full of political lies and ideological prejudice.” In the United Kingdom, parliamentarians unanimously approved a motion denouncing that China’s treatment of Uyghurs as genocide. Similarly, in a non-binding vote, the European Parliament harshly criticized human rights abuses in Xinjiang, such as forced labor and forced sterilizations, as “crimes against humanity” and warned of “a serious risk of genocide” against Uyghurs.

In the case of Japan, the Japanese government has not signed and ratified the Genocide Convention. However, a non-partisan parliamentary league tasked with considering Japan’s human rights diplomacy, which was formed last year, adopted a resolution in April 2022 to demand the Japanese government ratify the Genocide Convention in the context of the Russia-Ukraine War. If the Kishida government supports the Tokyo solar panel mandate as part of its carbon-neutrality strategy, the government would need to explain if what has been going on in Xinjiang is genocide or not. As part of that process, Japan should ratify the Genocide Convention by overcoming its negative historical legacy as well as legal and constitutional restraints. The Kishida administration has a moral responsibility to facilitate Japan’s early ratification of the Genocide Convention, which will enhance Japan’s global leadership for human rights diplomacy.

Japan’s newest “Strategic Energy Plan” has been formulated on the premise of safety, energy security, economic efficiency, environmental sustainability (S+3E), but it should be made into “S+4E” by adding “ethical” to the premise of the strategic energy plan. Based on the ethical standard, Japan, as the third largest solar energy-using country, should facilitate its carbon-neutral goal by introducing more renewable energy and endorsing the Tokyo solar panel mandate.