Electric vehicles have a dark side too: Blood batteries and child labour

Context: EVs are being pitched as cleaner, greener and sustainable. But are they?

Underlying the shiny exteriors of an electric vehicle lies a shocking story of blood batteries, extreme poverty and child labour.

What is the usage of Cobalt in production of EVs?

Electric cars use batteries. Lithium and cobalt which make up these batteries are rare metals.

The cobalt in the battery keeps it stable and allows it to operate safely. It is a bluish-gray metal. It is found in the earth’s crust or what we call crustal rocks.

In addition to its use in jet turbine generators, tool materials, pigments and smartphone batteries, cobalt is also used in lithium-ion batteries. Cobalt is used in about half of electric cars, which is about four to 30 kilograms per battery.

It is found all over the world in countries such as in Australia, Canada, China, Cuba, South Africa, the United States and the Philippines.

What are the humanitarian problems associated with production of EVs?

Child Labour: 70% of the total supply of Cobalt comes from one country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Cobalt is mined in two ways in the DRC: Industrial (large-scale mining) and artisanal (small-scale mining). There are no labour laws or safety protocols governing artisanal mines in the DRC, where 20-30% of the country’s cobalt is mined.

These mines employ some 200,000 miners, and at least 40,000 of them are children, some as young as six years old. The children in the mine dig for cobalt under inhumane conditions in a furnace-like environment. Upon digging the rock, they crush it, wash it and then take their finds to the market in order to sell them. They sometimes make as little as a dollar.

Many miners suffer permanent lung damage, skin infections and other life-changing injuries.

Is the demand for Cobalt increasing?

Yes.

According to reports by the International Energy Agency (IEA), EVs sold more than 6.5 million units worldwide in 2021. The number is expected to reach 66 million units by 2040. Therefore, 66 million multiplied by 30 kilograms of cobalt.

According to the WB, the demand for cobalt will increase by 585% by 2050.

What is the role of China in this entire issue?

The vast majority of companies dealing in blood batteries are Chinese.

By far, the largest producer of refined cobalt is China, with 66%, followed by Finland (10%), according to Mining.com.

In the last 15 years, Chinese companies have bought out North American and European companies mining in the DRC, according to the New York Times.

China has promised the DRC billions of dollars in investment in the form of infrastructure, schools, and roads in exchange for Congolese cobalt.

In today’s world, China is leaking blood cobalt into the supply chain for electric vehicles. Chinese companies are purchasing cobalt from children in an effort to encourage them to engage in the trade in blood batteries.

Are the global automakers aware of these issues?

The world’s largest automakers including Tesla, Volvo, Renault, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, all source cobalt from Chinese mines in the DRC.

While they may claim to have a zero-tolerance policy on child labour, they are also aware that there is no way to map their entire supply chains.

Way forward

EVs thus run on dirty energy, on blood batteries and are not a climate solution.

This is human rights abuse and the two cannot co-exist. A climate solution should not be at the expense of human life.

Long story short, electric vehicles have a long way to go before they can claim to be clean.

Source: This post is based on the article “Electric vehicles have a dark side too: Blood batteries and child labour” published in DTE on 26th Apr 22.

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