Alarming media reports throughout 2019 of melting ice sheets and sea levels rising faster than predicted, forest fires burning out of control in the US and Australia, and the right to breathe under threat in Pakistan have made it abundantly clear that the climate crisis requires ambitious, urgent action by governments and industry.
To substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, a rapid shift toward cleaner technologies is essential. And it is of critical importance that these new technologies do not negatively impact human rights. Electric vehicles, for example, can help reduce pollution from fossil fuels. But these vehicles require lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, and every stage of the battery lifecycle, from mineral extraction to disposal, carries human rights and environmental risks.
To address this issue, Amnesty International is challenging electric vehicle industry leaders to make the world’s first completely ethical battery within five years. In collaboration with the environmental organization Greenpeace, we are calling for industry to produce a rechargeable battery that is mined, manufactured, designed, reused and recovered without human rights abuse or environmental damage.
Why do we need ethical batteries?
Cobalt and lithium are two of the key minerals required to make lithium-ion batteries that power our electronics and charge our electric vehicles. The demand for both is projected to grow exponentially within the next decade in order to meet demand. Over 125 million electric vehicles are estimated to be on the road by 2030 – a 40% increase over the current number of EVs on the road. With demand for batteries to power these vehicles soaring, now is the time for a radical overhaul of our energy sources. This source of power must prioritize the protection of human rights and the environment.
Electric vehicles are currently not as ethical as some retailers would like us to believe. Years of unregulated industry practices have led to detrimental human rights and environmental impacts.
Amnesty’s 2016 investigation, in collaboration with the Congolese NGO, Afrewatch, resulted in the report, “This is What We Die For” which found children and adults in southern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are mining cobalt by hand in hazardous conditions, working long hours for little pay and without proper safety equipment. Amnesty’s research linked these mines to the supply chains of many of the world’s leading electronics brands and electric vehicle companies. As a result of this report, and a petition signed by over 100,000 Amnesty supporters, companies such as Apple, Samsung and BMW have mapped out their cobalt supply chains. However, while there are some signs of progress, people continue to mine without basic protection, including masks, and in unstable shafts. They work for long hours with low pay. This is profoundly unjust.
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. 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 labour and other abuses is unacceptably high.
Other human rights and environmental risks associated with lithium-ion batteries are emerging. Companies need to change course now.
In addition to the problems surrounding cobalt mining, there are human rights risks associated with lithium mining as well. The process of mining lithium is water intensive and pollutes the environment. Indigenous communities in Argentina have not been adequately consulted about lithium mining projects, nor is their right to self-determination being upheld. Extraction of lithium from the salt flats within their territories could pollute their already scarce water. As lithium demand soars, harm to Indigenous peoples could increase, unless human rights are protected.
The human rights and environmental risks associated with lithium-ion rechargeable batteries do not stop at mining, unfortunately. Most of the current manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries is concentrated in China, South Korea and Japan, where electricity generation remains dependent on coal and other polluting sources of power. And, there is already significant evidence, for example, that battery waste from electronics, which contains various hazardous materials, has been irresponsibly disposed of, contaminating soil, water and air.
How will Amnesty and Greenpeace meet this ambitious goal of creating an ethical battery within the next 5 years?
Therefore Amnesty International and Greenpeace will also be calling for: batteries to be designed in a way that optimizes their potential for re-use; the illegal or dangerous exportation and dumping of batteries to be prevented; the rights of everyone involved in the battery manufacturing industry be legally protected and enforced; greenhouse gas emissions from the battery manufacturing industry to be minimized and offset; and companies to conduct human rights due diligence throughout their global supply chains. Our goal is for governments to make it a legal requirement for batteries to be ethically sourced and produced.
There is nothing stopping governments from reducing greenhouse gas emissions while also safeguarding human rights. It is not an either/or choice.
Now, we are inviting our members to join the next exciting phase of our ethical battery campaign
This March, Amnesty will launch a new human rights education series and briefing paper on lithium mining in Argentina. We invite you to join this initiative to demand that corporations (some of which are Canadian), governments and investors respect the right to self-determination of the Indigenous peoples in Argentina of the Salinas Grandes who stand to be affected by the soaring global demand for lithium to power electric vehicle batteries.
Amnesty believes that clean energy does not require a trade-off between people and the environment. Together with our allies, we will produce a blueprint for an ethical battery. We hope you will join us.
For more information and to get involved in the launch of our new human rights education series on March, please email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are between the ages of 16-25, drive or ride transit, and are interested in joining a focus group on Amnesty’s ethical battery campaign, please send an email to Amnesty’s Youth Fellow, Serisha Iyar: email@example.com.