UK government’s “green day” electric car policies will sacrifice the Global South for transition minerals

Electric car charging. Transition minerals for electric vehicles like this are driving human rights abuses in the Global South.
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The UK government’s electric vehicle expansion plans risk escalating human rights abuses in the Global South for transition minerals.

On Thursday 30 March, energy security secretary Grant Shapps made a series of announcements on the UK’s net zero ambitions. Whitehall initially billed the day as a “green day”. The government was set to publish a raft of green energy policy updates. They released multiple documents detailing new climate policies. These policies are designed to advance the progress towards its 2050 net zero-emissions target.

Significantly, the new strategy demonstrates how the government anticipates that shifting to electric vehicles will play a key role in its efforts to reduce emissions.

However, new reports from indigenous and human rights organisations show that the government’s reliance on electric vehicles could come with heavy costs. Specifically, the focus could cause an expansion of the extraction of critical minerals. Furthermore, multiple non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have linked the mining of these minerals to corporations violating the human rights of communities in the Global South.

Expanding extractive industries

The government’s new Carbon Budget Delivery Plan illustrates how the shift to electric vehicles is central to its decarbonisation strategy. The delivery plan itself aims to quantify the potential emissions reductions of its policy announcements. As CarbonBrief identified, the government anticipates some of the largest cuts will come from the domestic transport sector. CarbonBrief pointed out that the majority of these reductions result from the shift to electric vehicles.

The government estimates that Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEVs) will make up 52% of the total car fleet by 2035. It also anticipates that 43% of vans and 37% of Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) will be ZEVs by the same date.

In 2019, leading scientists from the Natural History Museum (NHM) highlighted the immense resource challenge of accelerating the shift to ZEVs. Professor Richard Herrington and NHM researcher colleagues wrote a letter to the Committee on Climate Change. They explained that replacing all vehicles on the road in the UK today:

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would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes copper.

Furthermore, they calculated that this represents:

just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and 12% of the world’s copper production during 2018.

In short, the UK government’s plan to increase uptake of ZEVs will require an expansion in mining industries. However, the extractive sector in its current form has caused multiple examples of human rights violations.

‘Green colonialism’ for transition minerals

On 29 March, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre released a new report on transition minerals in the Andean region of South America. It focused on the impacts of mineral extraction on communities in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

Moreover, the report uncovered that mining companies are causing harm. These corporations are inflicting damage on the environment and the territories of peasant farmers and indigenous peoples.

The Centre explained that the Andes is a rich source of the critical minerals essential for green energy technology. These include minerals and ores such as copper, gold, silver, lithium, and molybdenum. Consequently, the report highlighted how the region is at the crosshairs of the global energy transition. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s senior researcher for South America Amanda Romero said:

Those who have preserved the land for generations are now being harmed by irresponsible business practices.

Romero stated how these mining companies have harmed local communities:

those who have participated in peaceful resistance and demonstrations have faced attacks, intimidation and legal threats. All the while, labour opportunities promised to them through the mining activities do not always materialise.

Moreover, the Centre’s transition minerals tracker identified 495 allegations of human rights abuse between 2010 to 2021.The tracker monitors the human rights practices of companies that mine six key transition minerals.

In other words, the companies currently engaged in the extraction of transition minerals in resource-rich Global South countries are violating the rights of marginalised peoples. As a result, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre said that this “extractivism and exploitation” is fuelling a new kind of “green colonialism.”

Transition minerals and uncontacted tribes

Already, demand from the Global North is exacerbating the harm that transnational corporations are inflicting on agricultural and indigenous communities.

Survival International has highlighted how a transition mineral project in Indonesia is endangering an indigenous community. The indigenous rights organisation reported that Weda Bay Nickel (WBN) is ramping up mining in the forest territory of an uncontacted indigenous tribe. This indigenous community live in voluntary isolation, with little or no contact from the outside world. French company Eramet owns the joint venture.

The vast nickel mining concession on the island of Halmahera overlaps with the territory of indigenous Hongana Manyawa tribe. Between 300-500 uncontacted members of the tribe inhabit the forest area where WBN plans to mine. The mining project is part of the Indonesian government’s plan to become a major producer of electric car batteries. A recently-contacted Hongana Manyawa woman said that WBN:

are poisoning our water and making us feel like we are being slowly killed.

Meanwhile, the UK government aims to facilitate UK corporate investment in Indonesian nickel and electric battery production. As part of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office’s (FCDO) ‘UK-Indonesia Partnership Roadmap 2022-2024’ the government targets investment at enabling:

business-to-business discussions on the development of electric mobility ecosystem, including battery production such as processing of mineral resources, including nickel.

The roadmap built on November 2021 discussions between the UK and Indonesian governments to jointly invest in an electric battery supply chain partnership.

Green capitalism is a colonial ‘solution’ to the climate crisis

Furthermore, the UK government seeks to meet the increased demand for transition minerals, in part, through diversifying international supply chains. On March 13, it published a refreshed critical minerals strategy. Echoing the ambition to develop electric batteries, the strategy states that the UK will:

Develop our diplomatic, trading and development relationships around the world to improve the resilience of supply to the UK.

As the government scales up plans to meet its green energy transition through ZEV expansion, this increasing demand for transition minerals could therefore risk further harm to communities in the Global South.

Ultimately, however, this is green capitalism operating as intended. Economic anthropologist Professor Jason Hickel highlighted how the shift to electric vehicles will render the Global South a “sacrifice zone”:

In his book Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, he argues that Global North governments’ emphasis on electric vehicles will:

exacerbate an already existing crisis of overextraction.

Furthermore, he stated that in the regions where corporations exploit key mineral resources:

some countries may become victims of new forms of colonisation.

Indeed, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre report showed how this is already becoming a reality for countries in the Andean region. The outgoing United Nations (UN) special rapporteur Tendayi Achiume has also raised concerns over capitalist solutions to the climate crisis. Echoing the problem of ‘sacrifice zones’, she told the Guardian in 2022:

Indigenous communities and racially marginalised communities are being displaced by innovations that are supposed to be leading us towards clean energy.

Crucially, she highlighted how these green capitalist solutions operate by magnifying existing racial injustices:

And there you see how a green transition, unless it explicitly centres racial justice, can come at the expense of and reproduce these sorts of racial injustices.

The shift to electric vehicles will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help the UK combat the climate crisis. However, the transition will rely on expanding extractive industries that destroy the environment and harm people in the Global South. Electric vehicle solutions entrench colonialist and exploitative resource drain from Global South countries. In addition, far from addressing the racial capitalist inequalities of the climate crisis, their production exacerbates these injustices. On top of this, the UK government’s ZEV plans will benefit mining corporations, manufacturing companies, and Global North consumers at the direct expense of marginalised communities in the Global South.

In short, the UK government plans to sacrifice the Global South on its altar of climate commitments.

Feature image via Michael Movchin / Felix Müller/ Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 770 x 403, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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  • Show Comments
    1. Conversely, the massive demand for Lithium is making Lithium extraction in Europe economically viable, and Cornwall’s clean safe Lithium extraction in tandem with geothermal energy production is developing technologies that can benefit communities around the world. There will also be a massive economic advantage to efficient recycling of the minerals needed, and as the technologies develop the mineral requirements will change: already the use of hazardous (and one of the worst mining risks) Cobalt has been largely phased out. The latest developments in batteries are all looking at using much more easily available minerals (Aluminium/Sulphur is looking like a winner) and the push for moving to EVs is driving this positive change. The poorest and most disadvantaged in the world are the ones who most need the shift away from fossil fuels as they are invariably the ones who are and will be suffering worst from climate change, and the alternative to mining copper to make turbines that can generate for decades and then have all of the metals reused is continuing to mine coal which produces power once and then dumps its Carbon and all of the other pollutants and microparticulates in the atmosphere, or mining uranium which also happens under the same exploitative conditions killing the land and communities where it’s mined and then killing the entire planet with its waste products.
      It’s the mining companies and the governments that allow them to operate that are the problem, not the technology.
      Yes we need to get the rich out of their monster SUVs as the shift to smaller vehicles would massively reduce the battery sizes needed, but just as importantly we need to get freight back on rail so we’re not building huge fleets of electric trucks to clog up the roads, just the smaller (more suited to battery power) ones for local distribution. But what we really need to keep the demand for Battery minerals down is a government that will build a national charging network that makes charging cheap and easily available so smaller cheaper EVs with smaller batteries become viable. Of course such a government would also re-nationalise public transport and massively reduce the costs so people had less need of cars in the first place.
      The Global poor desperately need Climate change to be stopped, as they will be unable to move to better land or compete for ever more expensive food, so don’t use them as an excuse for not doing everything we can: fight the exploitation where it’s happening and fund the research to make the rare minerals less vital and to improve mining and extraction (and recycling) methods where specific minerals are vital at the moment to make this happen quickly.

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