The first step towards sustainable transport is to cut out the need to travel at all. After that, it’s to enable and encourage active forms of travel such as walking and cycling. However much we pursue those policies, there will be a major place for mechanised transport, and that means electrification.
The shift from fossil fuel driven combustion engines to clean electric power is already well underway, with urban buses and taxis, rickshaws and bikes, trains, trams and cars. It may even reach planes eventually. And while it is possible to electrify some things without batteries – with overhead wires for example – there’s no question that more electric power will involve more batteries.
That creates a major waste problem, because batteries are tricky to recycle. As I wrote last week, there are solutions and a toxic waste battery crisis can be avoided with a combination of government leadership and circular economy business.
Another issue with batteries is the ethics of the supply chain. We’ve known for some time that the electronics industry has opaque supply chains for metals, and there have been a number of high profile stories about human rights abuses. The main problem is cobalt. Half the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is often mined by hand in appalling conditions. The ‘artisanal’ mines of the DRC often lack even basic health and safety guidelines or protective equipment. Children as young as seven have been found at work on mining sites, and they may be earning as little as $2 a day for a 12 hour shift.
The occasional scandals around ‘blood batteries’ or ‘conflict metals’ have so far tended to focus on smartphones, and the high profile players such as Apple or Samsung. This month Amnesty International have taken the message to EV manufacturers. Electric vehicles are driving a huge spike in demand for cobalt. Without due diligence, that will come at the expense of further human rights abuses in one of the world’s poorest countries.
What can be done about it? For a start, the industry has to acknowledge the problem. That appears to be hard enough. When Amnesty have asked, most companies still can’t say where their cobalt is actually mined. Some have taken steps in the right direction – Apple and Samsung’s battery storage division have both learned the lesson from the bad PR and are making improvements. Tesla, Dell, LG Chem and BMW are a little further behind but making progress. Others are ignoring it, including many Chinese metal suppliers that sell to the big brands. You can see a table of companies here.
Some companies have pledged not to use cobalt from the DRC. Tesla have announced plans to remove cobalt from their battery chemistry entirely. But the people of the Congo have every right to benefit from their natural resources, and not all the mines are badly run and unsafe. Better solutions could involve ethical certification for minerals, including blockchain certification for full traceability. There’s a need for greater transparency in sourcing, and support for monitoring mining standards on the ground. Amnesty are working with Greenpeace on mapping the whole battery supply chain from mining to final disposal.
There is every incentive for the authorities in the DRC to cooperate, as human rights abuse stories will drive customers away and incentivise research into alternatives. They have pledged to end child labour by 2025, and are working with an alliance of Chinese and Western businesses and trade organisations on a Responsible Cobalt Initiative. The group includes car manufacturers BMW, Daimler and Volvo.
If we are going to advocate battery power, we need to do so responsibly. The fossil fuel industry has a long legacy of war, exploitation, plunder and pollution. As we put those fuels behind us, let’s make sure we leave the abuse behind too, and ensure that the electric transport revolution is fair as well as clean.
- feature image by Julien Harneis