UN exposes ethical problems with electric cars

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Analysis reveals lithium refining takes 65 per cent of Chilean region’s water, while 40,000 child miners dig for cobalt in DRC.

A new report from the United Nations has laid bare some of the ethical problems posed by the supply of rare-earth materials necessary to produce battery-powered vehicles.

We reported back in 2018 how children work in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is home to 50 per cent of the world’s cobalt, but the UN’s report details how significant an issue this is, claiming roughly 40,000 children work “in extremely dangerous conditions, with inadequate safety equipment, for very little money in the mines in Southern Katanga.”

These children earn meagre wages despite being exposed to physical dangers, as well as “psychological violations and abuse”, the report claims. The UN says child labour in cobalt mining is “widespread”, while other issues include sulfuric acid build-up in abandoned mines, which can pollute local water supplies, while miners risk breathing in uranium dust when digging.

Car makers are attempting to move away from using cobalt, and some are even using blockchain to trace its provenance, but the material is still a mainstay in EV batteries, while mass refining makes tracking origins of the material close to impossible in some cases.

Lithium is another major constituent of cars powered by electricity; as with cobalt, each battery pack requires several kilograms of the material. The majority (58 per cent) of lithium comes from Chile, where the UN says in some areas 65 per cent of the water supply is used in lithium and other mining activities. This leads to the “forced migration of populations from villages and the abandonment of ancestral settlements” thanks to  “water scarcity and an increasingly erratic water supply”, the report warns.

Lithium mining also brings “ecosystem degradation and landscape damage”, according to the UN, while miners breathing lithium dust risk pulmonary oedemas.

Hugo Griffiths

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