Responsible sourcing of raw materials vital as fossil fuel era ends

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A truck transports ore from a modern lithium mine. [Jason Benz Bennee / Shutterstock.com]

Greater quantities of lithium, nickel, copper and other metals will be required to power Europe’s transition to electric mobility. Robust regulation is needed at EU-level to ensure that workers and the environment are protected during the extraction process, write Mark Dummett and Julia Poliscanova.

Mark Dummett is head of business and human rights at Amnesty International. Julia Poliscanova is senior director for vehicles at Transport & Environment.

Every week there is more evidence that the shift from the internal combustion engine to battery powered vehicles is unstoppable.

It is also essential. The climate crisis is an unprecedented human rights emergency and the transition away from fossil fuels is welcome and must be non-negotiable.

But this shift poses a dilemma for organisations such as ours – whose missions are to protect human rights and the environment.

This is because, if done irresponsibly, the shift can come with risks, especially from the increased demand for battery metals and minerals critical to the energy transition.

To meet our growing demand for electric vehicles, the world is going to need more lithium, nickel, copper and other metals. The entire industry can, if done right, bring jobs and growth to resource rich regions – and prove itself a model of just transition for workers.

Yet around the world, we have seen how years of poorly regulated extractive industry practices in everything from oil to diamonds have led to detrimental human rights and environmental impacts.

These harmful practices are especially imposed on people and communities, who are already marginalised by poverty and discrimination, and are also disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of climate change, despite their countries’ limited contribution to it.

Without enforceable rules on supply and value chain transparency, downstream companies have all too often preferred to turn a blind eye to the conditions under which the raw materials they source are extracted, perpetuating the harm to people and planet.

And in addition, as these risks and impacts become better known, they in turn could provoke a backlash to the energy transition and be used by fossil fuel propagandists. This must not be allowed to happen.

So, how do we balance the urgent need of the world to move away from fossil fuels, and the polluting oil industry that has devastated regions such as the Niger Delta, while ensuring that the rush to find new sources of battery metals does not cause greater human rights and environmental harm?

What’s happening in the vehicle market offers an answer: we need regulation to secure change for the better.

For years manufacturers wrongly blamed consumers for the lack of demand for clean cars. But now that regulations in Europe, China and the US require carmakers to produce and sell electric cars instead of combustion ones, we know who was really to blame.

Regulation is needed for supply chains too. The new European Battery Regulation is one such example.

The law will not only incentivise low emission battery production and require recycling of critical metals and minerals. It also aims to ensure battery metals are responsibly sourced by mandating due diligence across the supply chain, on all business relationships.

As dozens of new battery factories come to Europe in the next few years (and a lot more globally), such due diligence is crucial. The problem is that some governments do not want the rules to apply until much later in the decade. If they have their way, this will be too late.

Similar mandatory human rights and environmental regulation is needed for all materials, including the fossil fuel industry, to ensure that businesses respect human rights and the highest environmental standards throughout all their operations.

Europe’s regulator has promised to do exactly that via the new corporate supply chains law. But the proposal, which was twice delayed, has now accepted the ask of industry lobby groups to exclude companies that employ less than 250 people.

This means many extractive businesses – including exploration projects – will be off the hook.

Responsible and sustainable sourcing of materials should underpin our entire energy transition.

The transition must be just – from the communities impacted to the mine worker, through the production in factories, and via the recovery of toxic minerals at the product’s end of life.

The shift away from fossil fuels to clean battery driven vehicles is now unstoppable. Harmful mining practices can be stopped.

Politicians hold all the cards needed to change that. In both the battery law and the new corporate supply chain proposals they must play them right this time.

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