An overall transition to clean electric energy is a vital part of reducing carbon emissions to address climate change.
In 2020 the UK government reported that transport remains the UK’s largest carbon emitting sector, responsible for 28% of domestic greenhouse gas emissions, with road traffic as the most significant source of transport emissions, in particular passenger cars.
Therefore the switch to electric vehicles (EVs) is principally to meet net zero carbon emission targets, plus to significantly reduce air pollution from road transport and the associated impacts on human health.
As the mass switch to EVs gains momentum, understandably there are questions about the way vehicles and their components are produced. CAfS strongly agrees that these are legitimate concerns which must be addressed by governments and manufacturers.
While many aspects of EV design and construction remain the same as for existing petrol and diesel vehicles, clearly the batteries and electric drive train are the most obvious differences. EV batteries are larger and heavier than those in regular cars, and are made up of several hundred individual lithium-ion cells.
Of particular concern is ethical sourcing of the often hazardous materials needed for EV batteries, including:
– the working conditions for those employed
– reports of possible widespread use of child labour
– the broader environmental impact of mining
As the switch to EVs accelerates, so will global demand for vital raw materials such as cobolt and lithium used in large-scale battery manufacture. Although other sources are being developed, currently the known reserves of these metals are highly concentrated in just a few countries, with nearly 50% of world cobalt reserves in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and 58% of lithium reserves in Chile.
While the supply of these materials represents a massive economic opportunity for these countries, and can be of direct benefit to local communities, obviously this must not be at the expense of human welfare or the natural environment. Meeting climate targets, improving air quality, and delivering an equitable transition to EVs across Cumbria, should never be based on unsafe and unjust practices elsewhere in the world.
A just transition to electric transport puts a direct responsibility on auto manufacturers to identify, assess and thoroughly regulate their supply chains, to ensure materials are extracted and sourced in an ethical and sustainable manner, including fully safeguarding all those employed. This critical obligation increases in importance as the world moves at scale to electric mobility.
Clearly there is also a central leadership role for governments to properly regulate the global automotive industry, including ensuring legislation is adequate and appropriate to secure robust human and environmental protections.
In a Feb 2021 statement Amnesty International again emphasised that ensuring clean and green battery supply chains must be a top priority for businesses and governments during the post-pandemic recovery.
A step change in battery use for EVs also raises important questions about how batteries and their components will be reused or recycled.
Whilst battery performance generally declines slightly over time, even after batteries cease to be used in vehicles there are growing opportunities for ‘second use’ applications as stationary energy storage devices, including an important role in helping to level out spikes in electricity supply and demand.
There is also an emerging industry to responsibly dismantle automotive batteries and reuse the materials, the aim being that over time this becomes more commercially attractive than mining new metals in a maturing EV market.