Lithium-ion batteries: Will they drive us toward a clean future?

Quick to praise electric vehicles, many are unaware about the grim realities laced in their crucial components 

Writer: Maria Stoica
Editor: Natalia Sanchez
Artist: Doheon Kim

Sleek and bold, Teslas have become emblematic of what electric vehicles (EVs) have the potential to be. But what their seductive exteriors hide is something more complex – lithium-ion batteries. A conservative model predicts an increase of 3000% in global electric vehicle stock by 2030, a figure which is further bolstered by countries such as Norway banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2025. Therefore, lithium-ion batteries will be critical in a move toward ‘clean’ transportation.

But lithium-ion batteries pose significant issues that we must reckon with – sooner rather than later. One of these is that battery technology is not progressing in accordance with growing demand, worrying scientists. However, the ethical quandaries coiled in lithium-ion batteries are more pressing. We need to contend with the contradiction that arises when we glorify EVs as a central solution to climate change yet fail to consider the problematic supply chain behind their batteries.

The supply chain of lithium-ion batteries begins with mineral extraction, often synonymous with unethical practices. As their name implies, lithium-ion batteries rely on a large amount of lithium, lauded as ‘white gold’. Home to 54% of the world’s revered resource and a favourable business environment, the salt flats of South America’s Lithium Triangle are the backdrop to most lithium mining. Crucial to lithium mining is water extraction, which has reached such a devastating level that it prevents local communities from accessing water to meet their basic needs. To illustrate the horrors of this reality, mining activities have used 65% of water in Chile’s Salar de Atacama region. The ability to harvest food and provide nourishment for animals – two major types of livelihood – is significantly dampened. In short, with demand for lithium rising, water shortages might prove deadly to local communities.

Most worryingly, that prediction fails to account for the possibility that the supply of lithium will be depleted by 2025, which would only leave communities in a lurch. The lack of support afforded to communities is also reflected in the alarming fact that only one in five lithium producers has integrated a human rights policy in their mining activities. Even scientists working on battery technology have called attention to the issue of most producers regarding cutting corners as the status quo. Therefore, there is a need to overhaul the regulatory framework that currently enables producers to operate with such appalling governance. Otherwise, can lithium-ion batteries truly be hailed as the ‘key’ to the green revolution? Lithium extraction does not occur in a bubble of its own, and it is a disservice to pretend that it does.

Communities local to South America’s Lithium Triangle are not the only ones impacted by mineral extraction. Although 6,000 miles apart, the grim horrors of lithium extraction are familiar to cobalt miners in DR Congo. Cobalt is similarly important to the production of lithium-ion batteries and, for the most part, found in DR Congo. An investigation into cobalt mining practices led slavery expert Siddharth Kara to estimate that of the 255,000 cobalt miners in DR Congo, at least 35,000 are children, some as young as six years old. Even the coolness of the tunnels where cobalt miners spend the majority of the day cannot offer respite – death always lingers overhead. 

Child cobalt miners have died as a result of tunnels collapsing on them. Enough of such tragedies have occurred for a lawsuit to be waged against Tesla and other tech companies for their failure to choose ethical cobalt producers. Lithium-ion batteries are tainted with the blood of child labour. As Western countries push for EVs at an unabated pace, the demand for cobalt will only increase unless structural change is implemented. For one, companies such as Tesla must hold their producers accountable, as realistically, that’s the only source of pressure they would respond to. 

Companies are cognizant of the ethical implications that underpin mining. A small glimmer of hope has come from the increasing pressure to improve lithium-ion batteries: Panasonic claims it will commercialise a cobalt-free version of battery cells it supplies to Tesla within the next two to three years. While perhaps the most recognisable, Teslas are not the only EVs on the market, meaning this technology must become the new standard for it to fulfill its potential.

When Tesla calls for a “zero-emission future” then, it’s accessible to only a fraction of the world. Right now, a zero-emission future is costing local communities their livelihoods and children. Too many ethical issues plague the mining of lithium and cobalt for them to be a viable component of batteries in EVs going forward. Battery technology can be improved – it’s solely a matter of time. But until then, in failing to acknowledge the hypocrisy that underpins such ventures, we perpetuate an injustice that impacts millions.

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