November 25, 2020
In the midst of climate change and environmental deterioration, there’s been a recent increase in the interest surrounding electric vehicles. They cut down on emissions, use recyclable materials and are seemingly better for the environment overall. Reducing emissions can additionally improve public health, according to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Instead of using gasoline, electric vehicles are traditionally run using lithium-ion batteries. This type of battery is made from both lithium and cobalt and is quite energy efficient. Along with powering electric vehicles, these batteries are also the chosen power source for phones, laptops and tablets. As these batteries are used in a variety of products, there has always been a strong demand for the product, and this demand will only continue to increase. However, the mining of these key materials has raised many ethical concerns, leading us to question how great the decision to go electric really is.
For perspective, both cobalt and lithium need to be mined in order to make lithium-ion batteries. Cobalt mining is concentrated in the Dominican Republic, which holds about 65% of the world’s supply of the material. The Dominican Republic is one of the world’s most underdeveloped countries, which has led to incredibly dangerous working conditions for cobalt mining. Those that mine the material often work underground for exhaustingly long hours with little to no safety equipment and are often plagued by the idea of potential landslides or collapses. Additionally, more than 35,000 of these workers are children.
Not only are these workers and children forced to operate in unsafe conditions, they are also further manipulated by the system. The trading companies and mining cooperatives use the workers’ need to provide for their families as a way to undercut their work and wages. When this is their only source of income for many, they have little choice but to accept what they are offered and withstand horrible work conditions. Although the operations in the Dominican Republic are disturbing, they are not the only ethically corrupt aspect of lithium-ion battery production.
Chile, Argentina and Bolivia hold roughly 60% of the world’s lithium supply. In order to extract lithium from these locations, an abundance of water is needed. However, water is already a scarce commodity in this region. By mining lithium in this area and working to meet the increasing demands for the product, locals are left without any reliable water sources. This has led to a struggle between many locals and miners in the area. This conflict has led to many citizens working to defend their rights to be informed and to have access to clean water and land per cultural traditions. As the demand for lithium increases, these issues will increase in severity, and many will be unable to live in the area.
There is no doubt that there are some positives regarding electric vehicles, particularly the fact that they don’t accelerate environmental deterioration as much as standard vehicles do. In addition, Elon Musk has been speaking of a new plan to create a battery that uses less cobalt. The issue is, there are still many problems tied into the process of producing lithium-ion batteries. There are better alternatives to lithium-centered batteries, such as aluminum air-flow batteries, but they are currently out of reach or are simply not as popular within the industry. If the switch to electric vehicles continues to be the preferred option, changes will need to be made to the overall mining process. There must be a way to create energy efficient products without risking the lives of many; the question is how and when this will become a reality.
Sierra Jezuit is a fifth-year studying professional writing and English. She plans to work in the editing field after graduation, and hopes to share her passion for literature with the world. In her free time she can be found listening to all kinds of music, browsing netflix and writing poetry.