While the Nordic EV Summit in March 2019 showcased progress on the adoption of electric vehicles, Amnesty International used that backdrop to issue a challenge to leaders in the electric vehicle industry – to produce the world’s first completely ethical battery, free of human rights abuses within its supply chain, within five years.
It is not news that the mining of cobalt and lithium, the two key minerals in batteries, has been linked to human rights abuses, environmental pollution, ecosystem destruction and indigenous rights violations. Amnesty was amongst the first to document the child labour and human rights abuses with a report This is what we die for in 2016, updated in 2017 by an article, “The Dark Side of Electric Cars: Exploitative Labor Practices”. More recently, “Indigenous people’s livelihoods at risk in scramble for lithium, the new white gold“appeared in The Ethical Corporation (April 9), describing the human rights situation in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, which hold 60% of the world’s lithium reserves. The environmental impacts of deep-sea mining are also of concern.
In addition to the mining of raw materials, battery manufacturing has a high carbon footprint, with most of the current manufacturing concentrated in China, South Korea and Japan, where electricity generation remains dependent on coal and other polluting sources of power.
Finally, the issue of electronic waste, including batteries, has been the subject of several reports: From the International Labour Organization : in 2012, Global Impact of E-waste: Addressing the Challenge and more recently, Decent work in the management of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) , an Issues paper produced for a Global Dialogue Forum on Decent Work in the Management of Electrical and Electronic Waste in April 2019. The 2019 report provides estimates of the workforce involved in some countries – led by China, with an estimated 690,000 workers in 2007, followed by up to 100,000 in Nigeria , followed by 60,000 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The report deals mainly with occupational health and safety issues and includes an overview of international e-waste regulation, as well as case studies of the U.S., Argentina, China, India, Japan, Nigeria. Similar discussions appear in A New Circular Vision for Electronics Time for a Global Reboot , released by the E-waste Coalition at the 2019 World Economic Forum, and in a blog, Dead Batteries deserve a Second Life published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development on April 9.
Clearly, there are labour and environmental problems related to lithium-ion batteries and the green vehicles and electronic devices they power. Recognizing all these concerns, the new Amnesty International campaign is calling for: improvement in human rights practices in mining, and a prohibition on commercial deep-sea mining; disclosure and accounting for carbon in manufacturing, and for legal protection and enforcement of workplace rights such as health, equality and non-discrimination; finally for products to be designed and regulated to encourage re-use and penalize waste, with prevention of illegal or dangerous export and dumping of batteries.