How do we make sure rechargeable batteries respect human rights?
There’s a good chance that the laptop, tablet or phone that you are using to read this contains a power storage unit. Perhaps you have recently ridden in an electric car or on an e-bike? They also rely on battery power. A battery is comprised of minerals that allow it to hold a charge and power your device or vehicle. Unfortunately, many of the minerals used to make the battery components are tainted with human rights abuses.
Cobalt and lithium are two of the key minerals required to make lithium-ion batteries. The demand for both is projected to grow exponentially within the next decade. Over 125 million electric vehicles are estimated to be on the road by 2030 – a 40% increase over the current number of EVs on the road today. Without adequate human rights protections in place the impact will be devasting for people involved in the extraction of these minerals. Now is the time for strong government regulation of the industry and enforcement of human rights and environmental protections.
To understand what we mean by ‘the battery supply chain’ in a human rights context, we need to look at where the minerals are mined and under what conditions, how frontline communities and their environments are affected, and what happens during the processing, manufacturing and end-of-use phases.
What should governments be doing?
To tackle the climate crisis, governments must drive the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources and green technology. For this transition to be fair and accessible to everyone, governments must urgently and substantially invest in a just transition.
Years of unregulated industry practices mean that the adverse side of the battery boom is being felt by mineral-rich communities, like those in the ‘Lithium Triangle’ of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia and the cobalt-mining region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Amnesty International is calling on governments to legally require companies to respect human rights and to carry out human rights due diligence. This means that mining companies and battery manufacturers, for instance, must make sure that their operations have the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples and that they respect the environment and human rights wherever they operate.
We are also calling on Canada to legislate take-back and recycling of batteries by manufacturers to ensure robust recycling and repurposing occurs. And, we believe that Canada should tax the use of virgin materials and incentivize the use of recycled materials in order to ease the demand on communities and ecosystems that are under increasing pressure to agree to new and expanded mines
Read and share our new paper: Powering Change: Principles for Businesses and Governments in the Battery Value Chain
What should companies do?
Companies have a long way to go in demonstrating that their operations do not harm human rights or the environment. Poor industry regulation, or even self-regulation, has led to devastated and contaminated environments, human rights abuses, divided communities, and alarming levels of corruption. Amnesty International is calling on companies to continuously and proactively identify and address risks for people and the environment from their operations and provide for remediation in case of harm. In addition, companies must improve battery design for longer use and recyclability.
PLEASE READ our new paper: Powering Change: Principles for Businesses and Governments in the Battery Value Chain
Read our new comic book on Rechargeable Batteries and Just Transition
Click here for the flip book edition of the comic.
How can we make sure human rights are at the center of a Just Transition?
Amnesty believes that human rights must be at the centre of climate justice and a just transition to a zero-carbon future. To minimize the harmful effects of climate change on human rights, Canada must reduce its fossil fuel dependency and greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. Central to this shift is a massive increase in the use of rechargeable batteries to power electric vehicles and energy storage units.
There is nothing stopping governments from reducing greenhouse gas emissions while also safeguarding human rights. It is not an either/or choice. Our aim is for governments to make it a legal requirement for batteries to be produced in a manner that respects human rights.
Other human rights and environmental risks associated with batteries are emerging.
Cobalt mining: more than half the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One fifth of it is extracted by artisanal (or informal) miners and around 40,000 children work in these mines.
Lithium mining: Indigenous communities in Argentina are not being properly consulted about mining projects on their lands, which could potentially pollute their water.
High carbon footprint of battery manufacture: Most of the current manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries is concentrated in China, South Korea and Japan, where electricity generation remains dependent on coal and other polluting sources of power.
Deep-sea mining: Rising demand for minerals has led to a surge in interest in deep-sea mining, which studies predict will have serious and irreversible impacts on biodiversity.
Reuse and recovery: Companies need to set out how they will ensure increased production of batteries does not result in illegal or dangerous dumping or exportation
Communities at the Frontlines
Cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
More than half of the world’s total supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). According to the government’s own estimates, 20% of the cobalt currently exported from the DRC comes from artisanal miners in the southern part of the country. There are approximately 110,000 to 150,000 artisanal miners in this region, who work alongside much larger industrial operations.
- Artisanal miners, referred to as creuseurs in the DRC, mine by hand using the most basic tools to dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground. Artisanal miners include children as young as seven years old who scavenge for rocks containing cobalt in the discarded by-products of industrial mines. They must wash and sort the ore before it is sold.
- Chronic exposure to dust containing cobalt can result in a potentially fatal lung disease, called “hard metal lung disease.” Inhalation of cobalt particles can also cause “respiratory sensitization, asthma, shortness of breath, and decreased pulmonary function,” and sustained skin contact with cobalt can lead to dermatitis.
- Most miners, who spend long hours every day working with cobalt, do not have the most basic of protective equipment, such as gloves, work clothes or facemasks. UNICEF estimated in 2014 that approximately 40,000 boys and girls work in all the mines across the southern DRC, many of them involved in cobalt mining. They work long days, carry heavy loads, and earn between US$1-$2 dollars per day.
Governments are required to prohibit and eliminate all forms of child labour and companies must not use or benefit from child labour in their supply chains. Amnesty calls on companies to investigate their supply chains and admit to human rights abuses if they find them.
Where a company has contributed to, or benefited from, child labour or adults working in hazardous conditions, it has a responsibility to remediate the harm suffered. This means working with other companies and the government to remove children from the worst forms of child labour and support their reintegration into school, as well as addressing health and psychological needs.
There are no new actions at this time.
Resources for Activism
Visit our cobalt campaign webpage for videos, stickers and more!
Lithium mining in the Argentine Salt Flats
The Kolla and Atacama Indigenous peoples have lived in the Salinas Grandes basin and Lake Guayatayoc regions for generations. The Salinas Grandes is the third largest salt flat in Latin America and a natural wonder of Argentina. It is a delicate ecosystem of a rare beauty and is culturally and spiritually significant to the Indigenous peoples who take care of it. These two areas, known as part of the ‘lithium triangle’ are thought to contain about 70% of the world’s lithium supply. The Jujuy provincial government has decreed it a strategic resource for development.
While there are no active lithium extraction projects underway in the area, the government has granted numerous exploration licenses. Despite the delicacy and scarcity of the basin’s water resources, the government has yet to carry out baseline water studies to understand the potential impact of lithium exploration and exploitation.
It is urgent that the government recognize this region as one watershed – the Salinas Grandes-Lake Guayatayoc basin – and carry out exhaustive and specific cumulative impact studies in accordance with international environmental and human rights standards.
As companies push deeper into communities in search of lucrative mineral deposits to exploit, governments are often willing to sacrifice the rights of Indigenous peoples. But the right to determine, for example, what type of development or economic activity is to take place on Indigenous lands and territories is up to the Indigenous peoples themselves. Some communities enter into agreements with their governments or companies to exploit resources and receive financial or other benefits from doing so. Other communities may adamantly oppose resource development for cultural, environmental, spiritual or other reasons related to the protection of their fundamental rights.
All decision-making processes related to lithium study and extraction in the Salinas Grandes and Lake Guayatayoc watershed must involve Indigenous peoples and respect their human rights, in particular their right to free, prior, and informed consent.
New Report and Resources: coming this spring!
Powering Change: Just Transition includes Just Transportation
For more information about what causes climate changes, what are the effects of climate change, why climate change is a human rights issue, who will be impacted by climate change, and why governments and corporations must take responsibility to urgently stop climate change click here.
Find out more in our new comic book on Rechargeable Batteries and Just Transition
Across Canada, Amnesty members concerned about climate justice and corporate accountability are working together to build a future that is not fossil fuel dependent but rather is renewable, accessible and leaves no one behind. The use of electric bikes and cars in Canada has skyrocketed in the last few years and will only increase as governments phase out fossil fuels and require auto manufacturers to build more – and better – electric vehicles.
However, our research shows that it will be difficult, wasteful and costly to replace every fossil fuel powered vehicle on the road today with an electric one. Therefore, authorities need to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, incentivize ride-sharing and increase affordable public transit. Governments must provide public transit not only for urban populations, but also for people living in rural and Indigenous communities and in particular, ensure that women, people with disabilities and children have access to safe, affordable and timely public transportation.
If you are interested in Just Transportation and Ethical Batteries, please join Amnesty’s Specialized Team on Climate Justice and Corporate Accountability. Join by contacting Elena Dumitru and learn more by contacting Tara Scurr.
Have you thought about how often you use single-use and rechargeable batteries at home or at work? Test your own awareness by taking our personal audit, a fun and thought-provoking way to help you think about how you use power storage units like batteries.