Drivers of change: how policy can power comprehensive battery sustainability

Blog Post Road Transportation
Published March 30, 2022

Jennifer Krill

Executive Director, Earthworks

Lina Fedirko

Associate Director, Road Transportation

In the global race to zero emissions, electric transportation is one of the key climate solutions for decarbonizing the sector. Powered by batteries instead of fossil fuel-burning combustion engines, electric transportation has a lower climate footprint over the course of the vehicle’s lifetime and that trajectory will continue as we move to renewable energy and as battery technology improves. In addition to climate change, fossil fuel-powered transport simultaneously contributes to local pollution that prematurely kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, and contributes to millions of cases of respiratory disease annually – electric transportation can avoid these devastating health impacts.

In this decisive decade of climate action, we can maximize the benefits of the energy and transportation transition. Internal combustion vehicles are built from mined minerals with harmful supply chains, and run on oil extracted all over the world with human rights, ecological, and climate-altering impacts. The mined materials used in battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs) also have an ecological and social footprint of their own, in large part due to the impacts of mining the lithium, nickel, cobalt and other minerals used in EV batteries. Mining contributes to environmental harm, freshwater depletion, mine-waste dumping, and human rights violations in many parts of the world.

We must urgently end our addiction to oil – and at the same time, we must ensure the transition to low-carbon energy sources is done right. Unlike internal combustion engine vehicles, which must be continuously filled with oil, we have an opportunity to get the transition to batteries right. Shifting to low-carbon transportation also offers the opportunity to transition to a more sustainable minerals economy – a chance to change irresponsible mining practices while at the same time fostering greater dependence on recycling and recirculation that can offset demand for newly mined minerals.

Building on our previous blog highlighting philanthropic recommendations for battery work, here we dive deeper into three key policy areas that are foundational for a more sustainable battery supply chain, and the collaborative effort required to achieve it.

Key policy intervention areas

Stemming from the example of the proposed first-of-its-kind EU battery sustainability law, the following policy areas have emerged as leverage points for sustainable battery supply chains. These are also focal areas where advocates working across climate solutions and human rights can work together.

  1. Responsible minerals sourcing that centers human rights and the environment:

    Responsible minerals sourcing must center the human rights of Indigenous, frontline communities, and workers at mining, recycling, reclamation, manufacturing and renewable energy projects, including the right of Indigenous Peoples to Free, Prior and Informed Consent as aligned with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Laws governing mining vary greatly by country, with no country yet doing enough to protect social and environmental values. In addition to mandatory environmental and human rights regulations, governments and industry can also look to the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) which is a multi-stakeholder led process to define best practices and standards. Consumer-facing brands that make cars, electronics, wind turbines, solar panels, jewelry, and household goods are already committing to responsible sourcing from mines that have been independently audited and verified as compliant with the IRMA Standard. In addition to pressuring industry players to join IRMA, advocates can push governments to adopt strong mining laws for a convergence of standards and practices.

  2. Recycling and circularity:

    Currently, economic structures including subsidies and market advantages create the conditions that prioritize new extraction of minerals, while reuse, recycling and repurposing face steep policy hurdles. It’s time create greater financial and policy support for innovation in retrieving materials, recycling, and extending battery use through reuse and repurposing. Recent research by the University of Technology, Sydney points to the tremendous potential that recycling and closed-loop materials systems can play, if the right policies are in place. China, Europe, and now California are developing policies around battery recycling and circularity. Advocates can support policies that advance best practices in material retrieval, mandate minimum recycling, require recycled content in new batteries and invest in domestic recycling capacity and circularity.

  3. Just transition for workers and communities:

    As jobs shift from one industry to another, we have an opportunity to support a just and equitable transition for workers and communities, and the creation of new, safe, well-paying jobs. Leading labor unions like IndustriALL Global Union and the United Steelworkers, together with environmental justice groups have advocated for a just transition and support for displaced workers, while also advocating for a response to the climate crisis and more responsible mining practices. Advocates can work across labor, environmental justice, and conservation movements to co-create a policy pathway for job training and creation in forthcoming industries such as battery recycling.

In addition to these three more immediate policy areas, we will need to seek out transformative, enduring solutions that ensure more inclusive and equitable access to electric transportation and the benefits of the low-carbon transition.

A call for a stronger alliance

There are dozens of NGOs, grassroots groups, and labor unions already working to build these bridges and support enduring solutions. In 2021, a group of 175 civil society organizations including Earthworks, Amnesty International, United Steelworkers, First Peoples Worldwide, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and many others endorsed a Declaration on Mining and the Energy Transition to support a just and rapid transition away from fossil fuels and toward a renewable energy system and more responsible mining. As we move from oil to electric transportation, we have the opportunity to further improve the sustainability of the transition while reducing supply chain impacts for renewable energy and transportation. Doing this right will require an alliance between climate, environmental justice, and human rights advocates – together we can do this.