Are Electric Vehicles Really ‘Clean’?

There has been some talk, and some worry, about the sustainability of the increasing EV production numbers. Mainly because finite minerals are used in the production of batteries for electric vehicles. As these minerals become more in demand, a closer look is needed to ensure they’re being sourced ethically.

Supply of Cobalt

The mineral we’re interested in is cobalt, and it also happens to be the most expensive, coming in at $27,000 per tonne. Currently, 40% of all mined cobalt is used in the production of rechargeable batteries. By 2021, it’s expected that the electric vehicle industry alone will account for 16.9% of the global cobalt demand.

Cobalt hasn’t been mined in the United States for 40 years, so, where’s it coming from?

The Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) produces 65% of the cobalt used each year. According to the government’s own estimations, 20% of the cobalt is produced by “artisanal miners“.

Artisanal miners work under highly unsafe conditions, often digging by hand and using the most basic tools. A potentially fatal lung disease, caused by overexposure to dust containing cobalt, is a particular concern in these mines. There are approximately 110,000-150,000 artisanal miners working in the DRC and can include children as young as seven years old.

The children working in these mines are paid approximately 1,000-2,000 Congolese Francs per day (US$1-2).

Amnesty International

An Amnesty International report highlighted that some electronics and electric car companies are failing to ensure that their cobalt is ethically sourced. Some of the automakers named in the Amnesty International report include:

It’s equally as important to monitor the electronics company that supplies the automakers with batteries. LG Chem, which supplies Nissan and GM with batteries, was also mentioned in the report.

Mark Dummett, Business and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International had this to say:

Electric cars may not be as ‘clean’ as you would think. Customers need to be aware that their green cars could be linked to the misery of child labourers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tesla

Although Tesla was non-responsive to Amnesty’s inquiries, the report went easy on them. Mainly because of Tesla’s battery supplier, Panasonic, which sources cobalt from the Philippines and not the DRC.

LG Chem does supply Tesla with batteries for their Roadster upgrades, but that’s about it. In fact, Tesla has publicly released their strategy on how to avoid using conflict minerals.

Tesla are making a real effort to ensure that their new models aren’t made using conflict minerals.

As electric vehicles become more and more mainstream, is this an issue that needs to be addressed? And if so, how?

By Robert Bacon
Updated: July 16, 2017