By on February 20, 2018

Child Labor

Electric cars have been praised as the future savior of mankind for quite some time now, but only in the last few years have mainstream automakers promised to drive headlong into EV production. Governments around the globe encourage the transition. The reality of battery production isn’t so clear-cut, however. Unless you make your daily commute in a Mack truck, odds are good that swapping to a sparkly new four-door with a lithium-ion battery isn’t going to be better for the environment.

Currently, it takes substantially more energy to produce an electric car than a conventional internal-combustion model. EVs sourcing their energy from fossil fuel-burning power plants aren’t much better for the environment than something that runs off pump gas. In addition to that, defunct batteries have to be recycled or they become environmental hazards — and no one has quite figured out the best way to do that yet.

There’s also the issue of sourcing the materials for those batteries. EV cells need scarce precious metals like nickel and cobalt. Those materials take a lot of energy to harvest and have, unfortunately, led to an increase in child labor rates in Africa. 

This all sounds really bad, but at least you can take some comfort in knowing that your EV will be better for the environment in the long run, right? If it gets the majority of its electricity from renewable resources and you drive it until the wheels fall off, it just might.

However, in most cases, it’ll be a lateral move, with pollution gains only occurring after 62,000 miles. According to a 2011 study from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, the total carbon footprint of a battery-powered car “is similar to that of a conventional car with a combustion engine, regardless of its size.”

Of course, that still doesn’t account for the aforementioned child labor. Bloomberg reports that cobalt production from so-called “artisanal” battery mines have risen by at least 50 percent last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Worse yet, state-owned miner Gecamines estimates the small-scale “artisanal” output accounted for as much as a quarter of the country’s total production of the metal in 2017.

Automakers must secure a steady supply of precious metals if “electric mobility” is to scale up as intended. While EV sales make up only a tiny fraction of most manufacturers’ volume, this could change in the coming years. Governments are aggressively pressing for the change and carmakers appear ready to follow through. But nobody is going to want to be associated with suppliers using unethical mining practices.

That said, it’s not as if the Congo has been particularly kind of children. Poverty is a serious problem for the county’s youth and having a job, even an extremely dangerous one, could be the difference between starving or not. It may also keep them from being roped into becoming child soldiers and further propagating what has become a cyclical tragedy within the country. But none of that makes the idea of putting them into harm’s way to mine scraps of metal for electric cars any easier to swallow.

At the very least, it could garner some seriously bad publicity for automakers building electric vehicles — many of which seem to have had their fill already. Apple and Microsoft received negative media attention after Amnesty International reported children were being sent down in Congolese mines to dig for cobalt destined for their products in 2016. The advocacy group said tunnel collapses killed dozens of workers in 2015, with many more likely to have gone unreported.

Unfortunately, it would be exceedingly difficult for any company to ensure its purchase of materials from the Congo is child labor-free. Cobalt from artisanal mines and large scale operations are frequently mixed together, then sold to a variety of small local distributors who then sell it to China. From there, it’s all smelted together and resold to battery manufacturers. While companies could simply sidestep the Congo supply chain, the vast majority of the precious metal is sourced from the region — and the small-scale mining operations that employ child labor are gaining ground on the bigger outfits.

Further complicating this already labyrinthian issue are questions as to whether enough long-term supplies of cobalt can be even established to support the shift toward electric vehicles. A 2017 report from Bailard Wealth Management alerted investors to the potential quagmire that was investing in cobalt. It even speculated that scrutiny surrounding the material may lead to cobalt being added to the list of conflict minerals regulated in the United States by the Dodd-Frank Act.

For now, cobalt demand is surging and will continue to grow so long as lithium-ion batteries are in demand. China has proposed a ban on the sale of cars using fossil fuel in the near future. The United Kingdom and France have both announced their intention to snuff out gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040, with Germany currently discussing the legality of citywide bans. California Governor Jerry Brown has set a goal of putting 1.5 million clean-energy vehicles on California’s roads by 2025.

Even if policies stay put, automakers are already positioning themselves to press on with electric car production while the market decides if it’s ready.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

Recommended

45 Comments on “‘Artisanal’ Child Labor Business Booming, Thanks to Electric Vehicle Renaissance...”


  • avatar
    Sub-600

    Interesting dilemma for the virtuous who signal amongst us.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      @sub_600: “dilemma for the virtuous who signal amongst us.”

      I have oil and natural gas fields, restore early 60’s gas guzzlers, and I own an EV. Guess I’m pretty much going to go to hell.

      • 0 avatar
        highdesertcat

        I was surprised to see five people I know in my area adopting a Hybrid as their Third vehicle, behind a pickup truck and an SUV.

        Three Prii and two Volts.

        No such plans for me although I fit the demographic of the people I know who capitulated to the Hybrid hype.

        Maybe they just have more money for toys than I do.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Why is it any more of a dilemma than for any other consumer good produced with less-than-virtous labor sources?

    • 0 avatar
      WheelMcCoy

      “Interesting dilemma for the virtuous who signal amongst us.”

      Better than drivers who don’t use their turn signal at all. They drive me nuts!

    • 0 avatar
      GoVeg

      Matt Posky should be ashamed of himself; this isn’t “reporting” but just a copy-and-paste from anti-EV forces.

      Let’s start with the source:

      Institute for Energy and Environmental Research

      A little bit of help (and a few seconds) is all it takes to find out where this group gets its funding: Our Friends of the Earth (NOT), the Koch Brothers.

      Ooops.

      https://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Institute_for_Energy_Research

      AND:

      https://www.desmogblog.com/institute-energy-research

      Let’s see how much the fossil-fuel loving Koch Brothers hate EV’s and all they represent:

      https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/koch-electric-vehicles_us_56c4d63ce4b0b40245c8cbf6

      AND:

      https://cleantechnica.com/2017/07/27/koch-brothers-video-smears-electric-cars-can-spot-lies/

      AND:

      https://electrek.co/2017/06/27/koch-brothers-electric-cars-fossil-fuels/

      More background here:

      https://blog.ucsusa.org/josh-goldman/electric-vehicles-batteries-cobalt-and-rare-earth-metals

      Lastly, I cannot find the source, but it does appear that all of these “EV’s are BAD” articles from the Koch Brothers (et al) seem to have forgotten to mention how much cobalt is in the catalytic converter of nearly every ICE vehicle on the road today, nor the negatives attached to risking our planet’s future, as reported by the President himself in November:

      To the surprise of some scientists, the White House did not seek to prevent the release of the government’s National Climate Assessment, which is mandated by law. The report affirms that climate change is driven almost entirely by human action, warns of a worst-case scenario where seas could rise as high as eight feet by the year 2100, and details climate-related damage across the United States that is already unfolding as a result of an average global temperature increase of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900.

      “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century,” the document reports. “For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.”

      Source:

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/11/03/trump-administration-releases-report-finds-no-convincing-alternative-explanation-for-climate-change/?utm_term=.8659ff953563

      **************************************************

      In the future let’s hope that our journalist, Mr. Posky, will do a little more research and real work, digging for the facts, before he posts another “news” article designed to obfuscate and intentionally misinform, and otherwise place our planet’s future at risk, so that billionaires can add to their fortunes by fooling so many, so easily.

      p.s. Oh, and let’s not forget the “good news” story here as well:

      https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-12-01/the-cobalt-crunch-for-electric-cars-could-be-solved-in-suburbia

  • avatar
    mcs

    Panasonic gets most of its cobalt from the Philippines. The demand for cobalt is also making it attractive for cobalt mining in both Canada and the U.S. More mines elsewhere might ultimately result in less mining in the Congo.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    “China has proposed a ban on the sale of cars using fossil fuel in the near future. ”

    China has already outlawed gas scooters. Like it or not not EV’s are going to make up a significant amount of the automotive market in the next 10-20 years globally. Not a perfect solution, but heads and tails better than conventional ICE powered vehicles.

    Nothing I’d rather drive than my Volt when it’s in EV mode!

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      To each his own. But even in China they will have to come to grips with the dreaded Range Anxiety.

      I watched Lay Leno’s garage yesterday where he drag races a Grandma in a Tesla with his Cobra 427 SOHC, and gets the hell beat out of him.

      Funny! Really funny!

      • 0 avatar
        TMA1

        Most of the people who drive cars in China already live in major cities, and since they have decent inter-city rail transport, range anxiety isn’t going to be the same issue as it is in the US.

      • 0 avatar
        Carlson Fan

        “To each his own. But even in China they will have to come to grips with the dreaded Range Anxiety.”

        You need to live with an EV before you make a comment like that. My Volt with it’s meager 40 miles of EV range has already convinced me that my next vehicle will probably be a full on EV. I do like that I can road trip w/Volt anywhere, any distance and still have something that drives like a million bucks while returning 40+ MPG. Much better than running the Tahoe which I prefer not to pull out of the garage unless I’m towing with it.

        • 0 avatar
          highdesertcat

          Carlson Fan, I live in the High Desert of Southcentral NM, 75 miles and 115 miles from the nearest cities.

          Electrical outlets available to the public are few and far between.

          The only full on EV toys that sell here are for rich people who already have at least two other vehicles. And they really can’t go very far with them.

          That’s why Hybrids, like the Prius, are much more popular as a third or fourth vehicle in my area.

          But we don’t see many of them.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    This is a pretty clumsy slam, Matt. The battery recycling problem is mostly solved, with all of the major hybrid and EV OEMs having recycling programs. The carbon footprint claim is based mostly on the worst case with respect to electricity generation: small-plant coal. Any other power source gives an advantage to the EV.

    It’s enough to say you dislike EVs for whatever reason (and, anyway, how much of it is really about the EVs and how much is about environmentalist politics?) without presenting a distorted case against them.

    • 0 avatar
      stingray65

      Dal – you are full of it. Recycling is not solved, because large scale recycling of EV batteries has yet to happen. Supposedly electronics recycling has also been “solved”, but most of it gets shipped to low cost countries where children and other unskilled laborers use dangerous chemicals and other unsafe/unsanitary methods to extract the useful elements and no doubt “safely and environmentally” dispose of the rest. Similarly, most lifecycle studies of EVs are done by EV loving researchers who almost always use the most generous assumptions for EV emissions. But the reality is the vast majority of the world’s electricity is generated by carbon sourced fuels (with coal the biggest source), and will continue to be so for at least another 50 years. Meanwhile gas and oil extraction, refining, and transport continues to get cleaner and cheaper, while internal combustion engines continue to show remarkable efficiency gains, so environmental gains from shifting to EVs is far, far away from being a certainty. Yet our “betters” in government seem to be 100% certain of the future, which gives me such confidence since these are the same governments that ignored multiple warnings about the Florida school shooter, and are running bankrupt public pension systems all around the world.

    • 0 avatar
      Sub-600

      Sounds a lot like the Kenyan’s “settled science” claim. Nothing about EVs is settled or solved, especially the range issue which may never be solved barring a huge breakthrough somewhere. Quantify “mostly” as it pertains to the solution of the battery recycling issue.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        “Quantify ‘mostly.\'”

        60 to 70 percent by weight.

        https://www.tesla.com/blog/teslas-closed-loop-battery-recycling-program

        ICE vehicles are recycled at about the same rate.

        In any case much more is “settled” about EVs than the false claim that the previous president was Kenyan.

        • 0 avatar
          Detroit-Iron

          I don’t have anything against the guy, but according to the laws of Kenya he literally is Kenyan:

          http://www.klrc.go.ke/index.php/constitution-of-kenya/109-chapter-three-citizenship/180-14-citizenship-by-birth

          My roommate in college could not go to Lebanon because he would be drafted, even though nobody from his family had lived there for two generations.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            He could apply for and receive Kenyan citizenship (ironically, the proof of parentage would be that same US birth certificate that sends the birthers into a conspiracy frenzy), but we both know that’s not what the previous poster meant.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            According to the laws of Israel, I’m Israeli, and so is every other member of the species Homo Sapiens that was born to a Jewish mother.

            It’s gonna get crowded there.

        • 0 avatar
          vehic1

          +1

        • 0 avatar
          stingray65

          How many batteries has Tesla actually recycled – a few hundred? Lets see how they do when 50,000 to 100,000 Model S and X get scrapped annually. Perhaps that is why Elon is working on rockets so he can dump old batteries on Mars.

          As for our former Kenyan president. If the media had ever shown the interest in Obama’s past that they show in any Republican, they probably would have found that he claimed “exotic” Kenyan citizenship when applying to Ivy League schools and when he was hawking his books. An unbiased press also would have much more publicly acknowledged that it was the 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign that originally started the Kenyan rumors – probably based on some dossier they paid for to find dirt on Obama.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al from Oz

      Dal,
      Have a read on China’s change of attitude towards recycling.

      Most recycling has been done in China and with its new environmental laws I think recycling will cost more.

      The impact will huge. Right now in Australia huge piles of recyclable materials is accumulating. The US also moves massive amounts of recyclable material to China.

      Not only will battery recycling cost more but so will our garbage collection.

      So, we do export to China, to save money and it will cost billions for us to process these materials.

      Did the “Chinese are taking Murican jobs” clan factor this into their narrow views?

    • 0 avatar
      2manycars

      I don’t dislike electric cars per se, what I object to is armed thugs (“governments”) forcing the issue. If electric cars are really better there will be no need to bribe, or force, people into buying them.

      • 0 avatar
        Sub-600

        Bribe, force, or create a climate “crisis”. Whenever the government uses the term “crisis” you can rest assured an agenda is about to be rammed down your throat. In this case it’s EV weenie-mobiles that’ll go 200 miles and then you can cool your heels for 12 hours and go another 200.

        • 0 avatar
          joeaverage

          Sub-600 you might look at the charging cycle for modern EVs. Some are recharging to 80% in 30 minutes. Overnight on a dryer plug.

        • 0 avatar
          FreedMike

          “Whenever the government uses the term “crisis” you can rest assured an agenda is about to be rammed down your throat.”

          And the current government has no “crises” it claims will be the Death of America unless they’re dealt with immediately.

          …cough…border wall…cough…

          • 0 avatar
            stuki

            All governments make up “crises.”

            They’re just a rebranding of what Mencken referred to as hobgoblins. Like said hobgoblins, they are invented solely as a means to get the weak of mind to clamor for strongman government to lead them to safety. Also like hobgoblins, the only ones who believe in them, are children and others with childrens’ intellects. And, again, like hobgoblins, they are all imaginary. Emphasis on all. Absolutely all. Without a single exception whatsoever. Ever.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      “It’s enough to say you dislike EVs for whatever reason”

      I dislike them because I’m offended by people who think there are things more important than child slave labor and making warlords the most prosperous people in the world. If you think you have the high moral ground, you’ll believe anything at all.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        And our actions to secure oil supply have always been morally squeaky clean. Right.

        Any time we’ve tried to secure resources internationally, we’ve ended up supporting regrettable people.

        • 0 avatar
          joeaverage

          Thank you Dal20402.

        • 0 avatar
          ToddAtlasF1

          I am not one of the people responsible for the US redistributing its wealth to foreign countries by blocking domestic resource utilization. The same people behind the latest EV scheme to enrich evil are the same people who block every oil well, pipeline, and fracking effort they can in the US. Not coincidentally, Democrats kill US jobs while enslaving children through their feel-good version of stripping individual rights and stripping limitations on government power.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    One reason why governments want alternative energy for the masses is to ensure an adequate supply of fuel for the weapons of war. In the active phases of Gulf War, the average consumption was 4 gallons per soldier per day. The general USA population averages 1 gallon per person per day.

    “The U.S. military consumed almost 180 million barrels (or 490 thousand barrels per day) of oil in 1985 worldwide. In 2006, its oil consumption was down to 117 million barrels (or 320 thousand barrels per day),[10] despite increasing activity in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
    http://karbuz.blogspot.ca/2007/05/us-military-energy-consumption-facts.html

  • avatar
    vehic1

    Forgot to mention the increasing use of solar and wind power worldwide, despite Donald’s best efforts to prop up fossil fuels. Also, fossil fuel pollution is easier to control at a power plant – than on millions of individual tiny engines, running around in various states of disrepair. I’m equally certain that any problem with child labor, child deaths/illnesses caused by fossil fuel pollution, etc., would be as readily mentioned here – as any electrification issue.

    • 0 avatar
      stingray65

      Increasing solar and wind is 100% driven by subsidies and mandates. Take away the subsidies and mandates and the industry collapses overnight. Donald isn’t propping up fossil fuels, he is just getting the government out of the way and letting the market decide.

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        “he is just getting the government out of the way and letting the market decide.”

        The “renewable energy” industry would not collapse overnight and currently there is legislation interfering with open markets for alternatives. The tariff on imported solar panels is a prime example.

        Shoring up coal IS interference in the energy markets. Natural gas is what is killing coal not solar or wind power.

  • avatar
    doublechili

    I am always amazed/annoyed at certain food stores when I buy a single small item and they put it in a huge paper bag (sometimes double-bagged) rather than a smaller/lighter plastic bag. Depending on the circumstances*, an EV can be like that big paper bag with one item in it.

    *Icelanders, on the other hand, should drive nothing but EVs.

    • 0 avatar
      redmondjp

      What about the massive cardboard box that Amazon sends you, filled with 27 seal-choking plastic air pillows, along with your tiny item?

      Jeff Bezos is singularly responsible for more packaging pollution than any other person on the planet.

  • avatar
    Testacles Megalos

    I don’t think this discussion matters much at all. Since the industrial revolution humans have been exponentially using up resources in the interest of speed. Faster production, faster travel, etc…. amplify human effort by the input of energy via resource consumption. Efficiency being less than complete there will always be anticipatable byproducts (even if we don’t actually do so); and there will be unanticipated byproducts (did Henry Ford even dream of the socioeconomic impact on cities by highway construction?).
    ICE vs. electric vs whatever – – – ultimately it makes no difference. This all slows down only if people start to walk instead of drive, pay more for their energy and food, and ultimately limit consumption.
    All the rest of this conversation is just rearranging the deck chairs….

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      @Testacles Megalos

      Stating the obvious doesn’t work because it is typically the message you don’t want to hear ;)

    • 0 avatar
      doublechili

      The conversation is about the extent to which EVs are more feel-good than actually environmentally-positive. However, the only real answer is technology. Yeah, EVs may be feel-good now, but eventually as efficiencies improve and more electricity is generated by renewable sources, they’ll be great. Or maybe they’ll be replaced by some newer, better technology.

      The point is, most people are not going to go for the “do less” solution. Yeah, you could sit down on a compost heap and run an icicle through your heart. It’s the most environmentally sensitive thing you can do, but it’s not much fun. And short of that, most people are not going to grow their own food, shiver in the winter, never go anywhere, etc.. If civilization is going to advance and lessen impact, technology is the way to go. So intermediate steps are not merely rearranging deck chairs.


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • Fordson: Some makes just should never produce SUVs…this is one of them. Look at the Maserati car in the group...
  • FreedMike: Toyota. Why do you think they haven’t invested in EVs?
  • redapple: Who will buy Tesla? GGM?
  • forward_look: Once I bought a ’74 (?) Colt/Mitsubishi for $100 that had the strut towers rusted out. I welded...
  • thelaine: Tick tock

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Contributors

  • Timothy Cain, Canada
  • Matthew Guy, Canada
  • Ronnie Schreiber, United States
  • Bozi Tatarevic, United States
  • Chris Tonn, United States
  • Corey Lewis, United States
  • Mark Baruth, United States
  • Moderators

  • Adam Tonge, United States
  • Corey Lewis, United States