by Julia Gaus
Accounting for 24% of global CO2 emissions, the transportation sector is key to achieving the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target . And indeed, recent news regarding the sector is promising: 158 states, cities, investors, and industry members signed the COP26 Declaration on Accelerating the Transition to 100% Zero Emission Cars and Vans ; sales of electric vehicles (EVs), while only accounting for 4% of total global new passenger vehicle sales in 2020, increased 67% year on year and are constantly outperforming growth expectations; and the price of EVs continues to fall as more and more models enter the market [1, 2]. However, as the demand for EVs grows, so does the need for input materials, especially the crucial lithium-ion batteries. By 2050, the World Bank expects global demand for key transition minerals, namely lithium, cobalt, and graphite, to rise by around 500% compared to 2020; short-term lithium demand alone is expected to triple between 2020 and 2025 [3, 4]. This exponential growth, necessary to fuel the sustainability transition, raises new questions regarding the exploitation of natural resources while also echoing some well-known criticisms of “traditional” extractivism. This article focuses on the human exploitation that has accompanied the lithium, nickel, and cobalt boom, not only in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but also in South America and the United States.
New Rationale, Old Human Cost
Probably the best-known troubling news surrounding transition materials comes from the DRC, where about 70% of the global cobalt supply is mined . Human rights groups including Amnesty International have for years called for EV producers to not turn a blind eye to the blatant human rights violations that are especially prevalent in the artisanal (or, informal) mining sector, which accounts for 10-30% of the cobalt supplied by the DRC [6, 7]. Among the accusations are child labor and unsafe labor conditions in a sector that lacks governmental oversight, thus allowing international corporations to exploit the dire situation of the local population .
However, there are other, lesser-known forms of human exploitation that accompany the mining of transition materials. As has been the case for oil and gas exploitation, lithium mining does not respect indigenous territories and connections to the land . In the main lithium-producing countries, the US, Australia, and the so-called Lithium Triangle (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile), the largest deposits are in, or close to, territories with significant meaning for the local indigenous population . For example, what is assumed to be North America’s largest deposit of lithium is found in the Thacker Pass area of North Carolina, a sacred ground for indigenous communities as the site of a large historical massacre [10, 11]. In early 2021, around a dozen tribal activists started a protest camp to stop plans to extract lithium from the area, which is enough to meet the projected demand of the USA . However, the activists face an uphill battle, as indigenous communities tend to lose against corporations, which serves as a constant reminder of institutionalized double standards and a lack of understanding of Native religious practices .
A third cost arises from the threat to livelihoods that accompanies “green mining”, as mining for materials crucial to the sustainability transition has been dubbed. Returning to the Lithium Triangle, one of the most arid regions in the world, the exploitation of lithium-rich salt flats leads to a 95% loss of the brine-extracted water . While scientific studies regarding the long-term effects of lithium mining on the local water supply remain inconclusive, at least some of the local communities of the Lithium Triangle have started to depend on water trucks for their drinking water supply . At the same time, the local population has seen little of the riches that (mainly multilateral) corporations are making off their land, while their own carefully-maintained livelihoods are put at risk . Ironically, as Voskoboynik states, ‘mining deemed necessary for climate mitigation becomes a clear threat to climate change adaptation’ .
Sacrificing The Few For Global Salvation?
Mining for transition materials echoes the environmental and social problems associated with the “classical” mining of fossil fuels. In addition to the problems discussed above, it is a divisive issue that pits members of the local population against each other. While some see the industry as an opportunity for employment and development in the region, others see exploitation, unfair contracts, and a threat to their long-term livelihoods [4, 11]. They perceive the discourse around lithium mining as a form of “greenwashing” that justifies the harm done locally with the fantasy of a technological fix that will allow humanity to enter a new era of sustainable prosperity and modernization [3, 11].
We will need EVs to achieve the transformation of the transportation sector. However, implementing the principles of a circular economy, by recycling old batteries, and of responsible sourcing, offers an alternative approach to producing EVs. Additionally, marketing should not dismiss the human cost incurred .
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