If you care about the environment or human rights, go electric

September 2, 2019

Are electric cars ‘better’ or not? It’s a question that animate discussions on social media, in the papers or at dinner with friends. Now that wind and solar are really taking off there’s less discussion about whether electricity can be clean. So the focus has shifted to batteries and countless articles debate and question the environmental, human rights and other credentials of batteries.

The one word that always comes back is cobalt. There’s nothing wrong with that. We should be critical (and we are) but we also shouldn’t forget about the elephant in the room when it comes to the environment and human rights: the oil that batteries seek to replace.

Cobalt is mined in Australia, Russia and Canada but most of it comes from the Democratric Republic of Congo. The living conditions that millions of Congolese are faced with are an abomination. See, for example, the news about the ebola plague in the east of Congo. It is also true that the working conditions in the mining sector (both industrial and artisanal methods) are bad and sometimes downright dangerous, often involving children. 

Sadly Congo’s problems are long standing. The disastrous legacy of my native Belgium’s colonialism, then Mobutu’s long and corrupt reign followed by a gruesome war and the Kabila years have made resource-rich Congo the poorest country in the world. It’s a big missed opportunity that the digital revolution didn’t bring about the changes needed in the country (more than half of cobalt mined today is used in our laptops, tablets, smartphones and other portable electronics). So how Congo’s new president and its recently created government will manage Congo’s vast resources will be key for the future of the country. But if the DRC gets this right, mining revenues could help the development the country so desperately needs.

So electric cars (and, before that, smartphones) are a great way to focus readers’ minds on the problems blighting places like Katanga, where most of the country’s cobalt is mined. But boycotting electric cars and cobalt will do very little to improve the lives of the Congolese. Our focus needs to be on using the rise of electric cars as leverage to put pressure on companies, consumers and governments to improve things. This is what T&E and others like Amnesty International are trying to achieve.

But whilst we are debating cobalt and Congo, we should take care not to miss the bigger picture when it comes to energy and human rights: oil. Europe gets its petroleum mainly from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Norway, Iraq, Nigeria, Angola and Algeria. With the exception of Norway, these are mostly authoritarian regimes with very problematic human rights and environmental records. For example, with its oil revenues, Russia suppresses its people, supports right wing extremists such as Matteo Salvini (allegedly in his case) and Marine Le Pen and finances an army of internet trolls. Petrodollars also bankroll real wars such as those in Ukraine and Syria. Saudi Arabia, the petrostate par excellence, is not just a notorious oppressor of women and murderer of journalists but also the world’s biggest purchaser of arms. Petrodollars have also fueled the rise of fundamentalist Islam and with it the gruesome terrorist attacks all of us remember so well.

Beyond Putin, the Saud family and other dictators, oil money also lines the pockets of companies such as ExxonMobil, Total, Eni, Repsol and Rosneft. These companies usually have tainted human rights and environmental records. Think for example of major oil spills, the rise of unconventional oil such as tar sands, or drilling in places like Congo’s protected tropical rainforest or the arctic. And that’s just a snapshot of the price of our oil addiction!

10kg vs 10,000 litres

But then people ask: won’t we simply trade an oil addiction for a cobalt habit? Isn’t that as bad? 

No. The huge difference between oil and cobalt (and lithium and other battery materials) is that with electric cars you don’t burn cobalt. With a small quantity of cobalt (around 10kg [1]) you can recharge your car around for 10 years or more. But your battery doesn’t die after 10 years. It can be used in other applications or it can be recycled so we can reuse that same cobalt for new batteries. Oil, on the other hand, you burn every time you turn on your engine. So, after 10 years of driving you will have burned about 10,000 liters of oil, sent thousands of euros to petrostates and oil companies, polluted your neighbourhood and exacerbated climate change. [2]

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold Volkswagen, the battery makers, or governments to account and enact rules to improve the conditions of those working in the battery supply chain. The problems in Congo and the mining sector are real and we will work with our partners to improve things. But let’s also be clear: if you care about human rights, political freedom or the environment, you can safely get rid of your petrol car and change to an electric vehicle, or even better, an electric bike or battery powered bus or other shared transport service.

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