America’s EV aspirations are putting human lives at risk
The Biden administration recently announced a plan to create a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations “so that the great American road trip can be electrified.” It builds on Biden’s aspiration of a “net-zero emissions” future, evidenced by his executive order to have EVs represent 50 percent of all new car sales by the year 2030.
The move, which follows the European Union’s ban on the sale of gas-powered cars beyond 2035, was applauded by leading environmental organizations, as it will lead to a dramatic reduction in vehicle emissions. But for those who understand the challenges of mining for cobalt, the news wasn’t met with great fanfare.
Cobalt is used to make lithium-ion batteries found in many cell phones, computers and EVs on the market today. The United States has no significant reserve of cobalt, which means we must import it from other countries — regions that do not adhere to the same labor standards we have in America.
Most companies get their cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country is home to roughly 80 percent of the world’s supply, and 20 percent of that is sourced from so-called “artisanal miners” — men, women and children who work in dangerous settings with few tools or protections to extract the mineral from the earth, earning only a few dollars a day.
Experts note cobalt’s high toxicity when it’s inhaled or touched. Hundreds of thousands of Congolese workers come in close contact with the material every day. Mothers with children “strapped to their backs” use their bare hands and breathe in harmful cobalt dust, as they work to dig, wash and bag cobalt only to be paid barely enough to feed their families.
Today China runs much of Congo’s cobalt mining operations. The country began investing in Congo decades ago when it saw future demand for cobalt based on the growing need for battery-powered cars and devices. Two years from now, China’s cobalt production is expected to represent nearly half of the world’s output — which will make the U.S. heavily reliant on a country that officials warn is a threat to our national security for materials needed to power many of the mobile devices we use every day.
Artisanal cobalt mining is causing serious environmental destruction as well. The global and explosive demand for cobalt has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, stripped millions of trees and contaminated Congo’s water supply with toxic effluents. By attempting to address the very real problem of climate change through accelerated EV production, other sustainability issues are being created.
Observers have likened current cobalt mining practices to “modern-day slavery.” “We shouldn’t be transitioning to the use of electric vehicles at the cost of the people and environment of one of the most downtrodden and impoverished corners of the world,” says Siddharth Kara, author of “Cobalt Red” and a fellow at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The bottom of the supply chain, where almost all the world’s cobalt is coming from,” he adds, “is a horror show.”
As tensions grow between the U.S. and China across a host of national security matters, the U.S. must engage every diplomatic lever we have to encourage the adoption of higher labor standards regarding the way cobalt is sourced in Congo. And U.S. companies that use cobalt to power their devices must pioneer new battery technology so that we are no longer dependent on China and the unspeakable labor practices taking place under their watch.
Tesla has announced it’s moving to iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, which are cobalt free. As of last year, half of Tesla’s fleet of new production cars have deployed LFP battery technology. That’s good news — and it’s where the rest of the EV industry should be heading.
Yet U.S. companies that still source cobalt from Congo are turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses that support the production of many of their products. Many companies tout their environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices, but they ignore the well-documented realities of industrial and artisanal mining. Meanwhile, the public is largely unaware of the true cost of the phones we use every day, the computers we work on every day and the electric vehicles we may soon drive every day. Our elected leaders need to adopt new policies to ensure these companies act responsibly.
Specifically, we must establish and enforce supply chain standards on cobalt sourcing — and make these standards transparent so that international companies that sell the material to the U.S. are held accountable. Additionally, we should support the domestic mining of cobalt, and work closely with our allies to identify other sources for the rare mineral.
Long term, we must diversify the way EVs of tomorrow are powered. It’s the only way to reduce our dependency on adversarial nations, prevent global human rights exploitation and protect our national security.
We have laws in America that prohibit abusive labor practices. Yet at the same time, we are enabling the abuse and mistreatment of hundreds of thousands of people to accelerate our vision of an EV future.
Aren’t we better than this?
Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.
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