The following is a contributed article by Ethan N. Elkind, director of the climate program at UC Berkeley School of Law's Center for Law, Energy and the Environment (CLEE) and Patrick R. P. Heller, an advisor at the Natural Resource Governance Institute and senior visiting fellow at CLEE.
Joe Biden's clean energy agenda envisions significant uptake of zero-emission vehicles. The plan calls for large-scale public investments in electric vehicle (EV) research, manufacturing and infrastructure, and consumer incentives to buy EVs, among other policies.
These commitments are vital to achieving long-term climate goals, as EVs generate approximately 50% fewer greenhouse gas emissions over the life of the vehicle than internal combustion engines, and perform even better in areas with higher availability of renewable energy. But to achieve these essential goals, governments and companies must complement electrification policies with enhanced commitments to more transparency across the battery supply chain and better governance in the countries that produce battery minerals.
We come to this issue from different perspectives. One of us has spent a decade researching policies to increase deployment of EVs as a crucial climate solution. The other has devoted his career to promoting accountability and economic development in natural resource-dependent countries.
We both hope that dramatic growth in EV use can create a virtuous cycle — reducing global emissions, supporting clean technology jobs in the U.S., and creating opportunities for citizens of mineral-rich (but often low-income) countries. But these gains will hardly be automatic, and industry and government leaders must deepen efforts to tackle the risks of abuses that can thwart climate and development ambitions.
The scale of production needed to meet long-term climate goals for electric cars and trucks is massive, and demand for batteries — and for the lithium, cobalt and other minerals they require — could grow exponentially in the coming years. This manufacturing surge creates the potential for tax revenues and economic growth in developing and emerging economies with reserves of these minerals — places as varied as Bolivia, Chile and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But mining (like oil and gas extraction) hasn't always led to economic development in the past, and mining booms in general can exacerbate corruption, human rights problems and environmental risks for the communities that neighbor mine sites. If public officials, EV industry executives and nonprofit advocates don't systematically tackle these issues, they reduce the chances that mining will contribute meaningfully to national development. They also risk disrupting supply chains and thwarting the expansion of EVs the world needs.
Inaction will result in reduced capacity of producer-country governments to expand production, further populist rhetoric that impedes government-company negotiations, and more public frustration resulting in protest and production shut-ins.
Key international players are beginning to take supply-chain governance more seriously. Battery and vehicle companies are working with NGOs on initiatives to trace the sources of supply and commit to transparency around their impact on producing countries. International institutions including the OECD and World Bank are pushing for stronger standards for company behavior and larger public investment in supporting producer country scale-up efforts. The U.S. State Department has announced an Energy Governance and Capacity Initiative to advise mineral-rich countries.
Producing real impacts
But to achieve real impact, these initiatives cannot stay at a 30,000-foot level; they must invest more heavily in relationships with producer-country activists and government reformers, and not shy away from sticky challenges such as corruption.
Coordination among these initiatives remains a problem, leaving companies confused about where to invest time and resources. And the initiatives must do more to address regulatory and logistical barriers to battery life extension, reuse and recycling, which is necessary in order to meet projected demand.
Based on our research and outreach to decision-makers across the supply chain, we recommend the following priority actions:
- Non-governmental organizations and vehicle, battery and mining companies should create public information platforms to share vital data — such as demand projections, priorities and concerns — among industry players, governments and communities in clear and neutral terms. Today, public policy in mineral-producing countries is often driven by rumor and influence-peddling. A more transparent system of information-sharing would increase trust and accountability across the supply chain.
- Advocates and public officials can give teeth to the various international standards by creating stronger incentives for participation, such as consumer-facing labeling and certification, and more serious investments in consultation and communication with stakeholders in the producer countries.
- Industry leaders, with government encouragement, can design batteries and invest in facilities to boost recycling and reuse.
While EV batteries come with challenges, they are surmountable. Efforts by fossil fuel interests to turn public opinion against transport electrification citing negative impacts of mining conveniently ignore the oil industry's own history of environmental damage and human rights abuses. EVs offer a pathway to a sustainable transportation future that fossil fuel-powered vehicles cannot.
Nonetheless, better governance of the extraction of EV minerals is essential to the future of mineral-producing countries, the electric vehicle industry and transportation globally. As political leaders and the electric vehicle industry pursue a dramatic shift to electrification of the world's vehicles, they must address these issues head on.