By Tim Cromartie, Policy Director, California Environmental Justice League

In the global push toward combatting climate change and identifying clean energy sources, including promoting the use of clean energy vehicles, the environmental community has so far overlooked a largely hidden problem that is a key aspect of this shift in energy sourcing: economic exploitation the likes of which would never be tolerated in most industrialized countries.

Many happy Californians driving around in electric Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs) believe they’re helping save the planet, but what they don’t know is that the batteries in their vehicles and the batteries at power plants that enable them to charge their vehicles comes at the expense of the blood and tears of children and laborers in a distant African country.

The production of these batteries is dependent on the mining of cobalt, a strategic metal found in various ores that helps prevent batteries from overheating and extends the range of electric vehicles. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, the largest nation in Central Africa, is the largest producer of cobalt in the world.

Cobalt has become known as “the blood diamond of batteries” due to its high price on the open market and the perilous working conditions under which it is often mined, conditions that would never be tolerated by the United Mine Workers of America. These include violations of child labor laws which are rarely enforced; makeshift mines devoid of safety regulations to protect workers, where some have died in narrow tunnels prone to collapse; a total lack of safety equipment; and wages that are the equivalent of less than $10 a day.

What is truly disturbing is these conditions are the everyday mining practices of Congo’s underworld mining syndicate, who is a major supplier of the ZEV industry. What can we do to end the “anything goes” mining practices that place ill-equipped workers at risk of injury or death on any given day?

We don’t yet have the technology to eliminate batteries altogether, but auto manufacturers like Tesla are expanding use of cobalt-free batteries using lithium iron phosphate known as LFP. California too is in a unique position to change the paradigm of Third World exploitation.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is charged with lowering greenhouse gas emissions to certain targeted levels. Since a significant amount of pollutants come from vehicles, CARB prioritizes funding for ZEVs, which are largely powered by cobalt batteries. But what if that changed? What if the fifth largest economy in the world (California) signaled it planned to shift investment elsewhere because of human exploitation.

There could be dual benefits. In February 2021, the State Auditor reported that CARB is at risk of missing its emission reduction targets, which heavily rely on ZEVs. Given this set-back and all eyes on the plight of the people of Congo, we believe CARB should re-examine its focus on battery-powered transportation and invest more aggressively in non-electric green energy sources (such as renewable natural gas and green hydrogen), and carbon capture technologies like sequestration. All of these technologies exist today. They have immediate emissions benefits and reduce pressure for cobalt.

It will take a shift in consumerism and public policy, but we can achieve clean energy without the criminal exploitation and endangerment of people of color in non-industrialized countries. We call upon CARB to aggressively seek solutions beyond batteries to improve conditions for black and brown communities who bear the brunt of pollution in our state – but also to relieve the suffering of our black brothers and sisters in the Congo.

If there is any torch to be passed to the environmentalists of the 21st Century, this is it.