“Finding effective solutions to the climate crisis is an imperative, and electric cars have an important role to play.”
The Nordic Electric Vehicle (EV) Summit in Oslo, which wrapped up yesterday, had an A-list of industry players on hand to advance the EV vision for clean transportation. Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover, South Korea and Costa Rica and African Green Transport were there – and so was Amnesty International.
If it seems odd that the global human rights organization would attend the EV conference, consider the growing demand for lithium-ion batteries, the back story on how and where raw materials come from, and the conditions for workers and communities impacted by the extractive industries.
“Finding effective solutions to the climate crisis is an absolute imperative, and electric cars have an important role to play in this,” said Kumi Naidoo, a South African of Indian descent who serves as Amnesty’s secretary general. “But without radical changes, the batteries which power green vehicles will continue to be tainted by human rights abuses.”
Amnesty International has documented serious violations linked to minerals used in the lithium-ion batteries, notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A 2016 investigation found even children working in artisanal cobalt mines, which poses a serious health risk. They were “neither protected by the government nor respected by companies that profit from their labor,” Amnesty said.
Amnesty’s “Time to Recharge” report in 2017 linked these mines to the supply chains of many of the world’s leading electronics brands and electric vehicle companies. The latter included General Motors and Volkswagen, and even Daimler, Renault, BMW and Tesla, which responded by taking some action to ensure ethical practices in their supply chains and increased transparency about them.
Yet much more is needed, the rights group urges.
The demand for cobalt is projected to reach up to 300,000 tons per year by 2028, two-thirds of that battery grade, but no country legally requires companies to publicly report on their cobalt supply chains. “With more than half of the world’s cobalt originating in southern DRC, the chance that the batteries powering electric vehicles are tainted with child labor and other abuses is unacceptably high,” Amnesty said.
Other concerns focus on the inclusion of indigenous communities near mines, with Argentina a new area of concern, as well as the environmental costs of lithium-ion battery production. That’s because most of the batteries are manufactured in the heavily coal-energy dependent countries of China, South Korea and Japan, and because the quest for minerals is headed into new territory.
“More needs to be done to reduce the carbon footprint within the manufacturing phase,” Amnesty said. “Meanwhile, rising demand for minerals like cobalt, manganese and lithium has led to a surge in interest in deep-sea mining, which studies predict will have serious and irreversible impacts on biodiversity.”
As a first step, companies should publicly disclose information about how human rights abuses and environmental risks are being prevented or addressed across the battery life cycle.
“With a climate crisis looming, consumers have the right to demand that products marketed as the ethical choice really stand up to scrutiny,” Naidoo said. “Companies who overlook human rights concerns as they clean up their energy sources are presenting their customers with a false choice; people or planet. This approach is gravely flawed and will not deliver the sustainable changes we need to save humanity from climate devastation.”