The Unintended Consequences of a Petrol and Diesel Free World

By Lauren Satill

This year, several countries, including the United Kingdom, France, India, and Norway, all set targets to stop the sale of diesel and petrol cars within the next 8-23 years. These are bold steps towards significantly reducing carbon emissions and improving the prospects of a sustainable global environment. Consequentially, there has been exponential growth in demand for certain metals, namely cobalt, and therefore, growth in the extractive industry. This industry is historically fraught with human rights abuses and the promulgation of this ‘green movement’, towards all electric vehicles, may further aggravate human rights abuses.

Electric car batteries are lithium ion batteries, made from graphite, lithium salts, and a cathode (which consists of 80% Nickel, 15% cobalt, and 10% Aluminium). Whilst it makes up a seemingly insignificant part of these batteries, cobalt sources are depleting and human rights within the extraction business is being overlooked at the hands of the growing demand for electric cars.

In 2016, it was estimated that around 65% of the world’s supply of cobalt is sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In January 2016, Amnesty International released a report on the conditions of cobalt mines in the DRC. The report found children as young as 7 working in artisanal mines with little to no protective equipment. On average, children and adults working in these mines earn US$1-3 per day. This information could only be collected from ‘artisanal’ mines as multinationals refused to cooperate with Amnesty International. Nonetheless, their impact must not be understated as they represent up 20% of the world’s cobalt supply.

Efforts have been made by the European Union, the electric vehicle producer Tesla, the DRC and others, to curtail these human rights abuses, however their propensity for success is dubious. In May this year, the EU passed legislation to stop the use of conflict minerals by 2021, however the minerals listed did not include cobalt. This means that, for companies like Swiss cobalt mining multinational Glencore, there is still no legislation in place to enforce mandatory reporting on extraction practices and human rights protections. Glencore, like any other company based in a UN Member State, would be subject to principles such as the UN guiding principles on Business and Human Rights, however this is difficult to enforce.

Tesla announced that their ‘gigafactory,’ to be built in Nevada, will only use ethically sourced materials from North America. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, this approach may be economically unsustainable for the continued production of all lithium batteries. Cobalt is in short supply and high demand, with an expected 855 tonne deficit of cobalt in 2018 and a 5, 340 tonne deficit in 2020. This supply deficit has resulted in an 82% increase in cobalt prices for 2018 alone. This pricing boom will likely be more significant in Western mines, pressuring major electric vehicle producers to resort to cheaper, DRC-sourced, cobalt.

The DRC government has recently pledged to stop child labour by 2025, acknowledging the problems present in Cobalt mines. The journey is likely to be filled with obstacles as children rely on this minimal income to support themselves and their families. Additionally, this verbal commitment is undermined by the recent Paradise Papers leak. Obtained and distributed by German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zeitung, these papers detailed how cobalt mining multinational, Glencore, supported by Diamond mining giant, Dan Gertler, paid out regular bribes to senior government officials to maintain their stronghold over DRC mines. Government corruption following the Congolese war is rife and may prove a major obstacle to achieving the proper protection of human rights in the DRC mining industry.

In conclusion, the significant global push towards a petrol and diesel free world may be premature. Scarce cobalt resources, coupled with poor working conditions and child labour in cobalt mines, may see the next generation of ‘green’ cars being products of significant human rights abuses. In order for this new ‘green car’ movement to be truly green, it needs to be coupled with greater international regulations around cobalt mining practices. Without greater regulation, the idealistically ‘green’ vision of electric cars may cause greater harm than good.

(Photo: The Carter Center/ G. Dubourthoumieu)

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