Human rights abuses and carbon footprint through fossil fuels used to make EV batteries are tainting the technology’s potential.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International is demanding that the electric vehicle (EV) industry come up with an ethical and clean battery within five years.
The organisation has accused the EV industry of selling itself as being environmentally friendly despite producing batteries using polluting fossil fuels and unethically sourced minerals linked to human rights violations.
‘Without radical changes, the batteries which power green vehicles will continue to be tainted by human rights abuses’
– KUMI NAIDOO
Amnesty has outlined a vision for battery production that can result in ethical and sustainably produced batteries within five years, involving extraction, ethical manufacturing, reuse and recovery of batteries, and a prohibition on deep-sea mining.
It called on companies to publicly disclose information about how human rights abuses and environmental risks are being prevented, identified and addressed throughout the lithium-ion battery’s life cycle.
Human rights abuses in cobalt mines
A 2016 investigation by Amnesty found children and adults in the southern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) working in hand-dug cobalt mines facing serious health risks, neither protected by the government nor respected by companies that profit from their labour.
Amnesty’s research has linked these mines to the supply chains of many of the world’s leading electronics brands and EV companies.
“Amnesty International is today publicly challenging leaders within the electric vehicle industry to make the world’s first completely ethical battery within five years,” the organisation said during the Nordic EV Summit in Oslo.
It highlighted how lithium-ion batteries, which power electric cars and electronics, are linked to human rights abuses including child labour in the DRC and environmental risks that could undermine their green potential.
“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, Amnesty International’s secretary general.
“But without radical changes, the batteries which power green vehicles will continue to be tainted by human rights abuses.
“The massive global corporations that dominate the electric vehicle industry have the resources and expertise to create energy solutions that are truly clean and fair, and we are challenging them to come back to Oslo next year with proof of real progress. With demand for batteries soaring, now is the time for a drastic overhaul of our energy sources that prioritises protection of human rights and the environment.”
Guard against false positives
Amnesty warned that despite projections that the demand for cobalt will reach 200,0000 tons per year by 2020, no country legally requires companies to publicly report on their cobalt supply chains.
‘Companies who overlook human rights concerns as they clean up their energy sources are presenting their customers with a false choice: people or planet’
– KUMI NAIDOO
It warned that with more than half of the world’s cobalt originating in southern DRC, the chance that the batteries powering EVs are tainted with child labour and other abuses is “unacceptably high”.
Amnesty said that the environmental impact of producing batteries is also a concern. Most of the current manufacture of lithium-ion batteries is concentrated in China, South Korea and Japan, where production depends on coal and other polluting power sources. This means that while EVs can play a role in shifting drivers away from fossil fuels and reducing greenhouse emissions, the production of batteries still produces a carbon footprint.
Meanwhile, it warns that rising demand for minerals such as 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. Amnesty has also called on companies to ensure that EV batteries are disposed of responsibly because waste from these batteries contain hazardous materials that could contaminate soil, water and air.
“Every stage of the battery life cycle, from mineral extraction to disposal, carries human rights and environmental risks,” said Kumi Naidoo.
“We need to change course now, or those least responsible for climate change – indigenous communities and children – will pay the price for the shift away from fossil fuels. The energy solutions of the future must not be based on the injustices of the past.”
Amnesty said it is collaborating with Greenpeace to identify and map human rights and environmental impacts of EV battery production. Countries, too, need to take a lead. For example, efforts are underway in Norway to ensure businesses conduct human rights due diligence.
“With a climate crisis looming, consumers have the right to demand that products marketed as the ethical choice really stand up to scrutiny,” Naidoo added.
“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. We are asking industry leaders to think hard about what kind of future they want to build.”