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If electric cars are the future, let’s make them responsibly

Workers marry the body structure with the battery pack and the front and rear sub frames as they assemble electric vehicles
opinion

Workers marry the body structure with the battery pack and the front and rear sub frames as they assemble electric vehicles at the Lucid Motors plant in Casa Grande, Arizona, U.S. September 28, 2021. REUTERS/Caitlin O'Hara

We need rules and incentives to ensure human rights are respected as mining for electric car components grows.

Jim Wormington is a senior corporate accountability researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch, and Richard Kent is an adviser and researcher on business and human rights at Amnesty International.

Consumers, already squeezed by record gas prices, could soon have a new incentive to ditch the pump altogether. 

Among the many climate provisions of the landmark reconciliation bill making its way through Congress is a $7,500 tax credit for people who buy an electric vehicle.

Ending our reliance on cars that use gasoline could benefit both our wallets and the planet. But if America is heading for an electric car revolution, we need to make sure car manufacturers produce greener vehicles responsibly.

The transportation sector is currently responsible for more than a quarter of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, the majority from gas- or diesel-powered cars and trucks.

Although America still gets more than 60% of its electricity from fossil fuels, electric cars have a smaller carbon footprint than gas vehicles, and this will only shrink further as we generate more power from renewable sources.

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Reduced dependence on oil would also reduce our reliance on petrostates and their autocratic rulers and leave us less vulnerable to spiking energy prices.

When it comes to human rights, however, electric vehicles are not as clean as their emissions.

The transition toward electric cars and other new energy technologies has set off a global competition to extract minerals critical to battery manufacturing, including cobalt, lithium, graphite, and nickel. In coming years, the demand for other metals, such as aluminum used for battery casing and car panels, will also increase dramatically.

The road many of these materials take to consumers is littered with human rights abuses.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which produces 70% of global cobalt, children and adults breathe toxic dust to search for minerals in makeshift pits. Workers in Congo’s industrial cobalt mines, many of which supply the global car industry, suffer under unsafe working conditions and degrading treatment.

In Guinea, a West African country with the world’s largest deposits of bauxite, an ore necessary to produce aluminum, mining companies push impoverished farmers off their land and destroy their water sources to make way for mines that feed into car industry supply chains.

In China, which dominates the processing and refining of critical minerals, as well as aluminum and steel production, reliance on coal power for mineral processing and refining is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Governments can push automakers to address human rights abuses in their supply chain by passing legislation that requires car companies to source materials responsibly.

The European Union is preparing a regulation that, despite some limitations, would require battery manufacturers to identify and respond to human rights or environmental abuses in their supply of raw materials, including cobalt, graphite, lithium, and nickel.

Companies that fail to address human rights risks in their supply chain would ultimately be unable to sell their batteries in the EU.

The electric vehicle tax incentives in the reconciliation bill include obligations for car makers to produce a portion of an electric vehicle’s battery components in United States, as well as to source a percentage of the battery’s minerals from recycled content or from countries with a free trade agreement with the United States.

After a short transition period, vehicles will also be ineligible for the credit if their batteries contain materials or components from a “foreign entity of concern,” potentially excluding any cars sourcing minerals or parts from China.

Automakers say these requirements would unjustifiably limit the number of cars eligible for the tax credit, while their proponents argue they are necessary to reduce supply chain disruptions and vulnerabilities.

Relocating supply chains to the United States or its allies, however, does not eliminate the risk of human rights abuses.

Advocacy groups warn that America’s antiquated mining laws, which the Biden administration is reviewing, are not currently equipped to protect communities and the environment from the impacts of mining.

Mining-related abuses can occur in any jurisdiction, whether it has a free trade agreement with the United States or otherwise.

Increased government funding for electric cars should come with provisions requiring car manufacturers to source responsibly, whether in the reconciliation bill itself or in subsequent regulations implementing the tax credit program.

Car companies should be required to map and disclose the mines and refineries in their supply chain, conduct and review rigorous third-party assessments of mines and refineries’ respect for human rights and the environment, and ensure that they take corrective action to respond to abuses.   

The support for electric vehicles in the mammoth reconciliation bill is a potential step toward lower vehicle emissions. Look under the hood, however, and car companies have much more work to do.


Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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Clean power
Adaptation
Energy efficiency
Net-zero
Climate policy
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