Case study

Electric cars: Not at the expense of human rights!

Little known, but true: the production of e-cars often involves human rights violations.

Autosalon OG Autosalon OG

Electric cars are touted as the clean technology of the future. What is less well known, is that the mining of the raw materials required for their production often entails human rights violations and environmental damage. Furthermore, electric cars’ supply chains lead to the occupied territory of Tibet and the processing of lithium has connections to factories that use Uyghur forced labour. The STP is calling for an equitable mobility transition that respects human rights all along the supply chains.

Under the slogan ‘Auto Future Now’, electric cars are being touted as the unproblematic technology of the future at the 2024 Geneva Motor Show. There is an urgent need to tackle the climate crisis, and electric cars are indeed around four times more energy-efficient than comparable combustion-engine vehicles. However, they also bring new risks, as the examples on this website show.

Transition minerals for electric batteries

Batteries for electric cars require minerals such as graphite, nickel, copper, lithium, cobalt and manganese, whereby the composition varies from product to product.

Global demand for these batteries increased by 65% year-on-year in 2022, to a total annual capacity of 550 gigawatt hours (GWh). The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects global demand to increase tenfold by 2030. Therefore, the demand for the required raw materials will also rise sharply. While, in particular, China, European countries and the USA are electrifying private transport, the increasing mining of raw materials is mainly affecting Indigenous areas.

Due to the lack of transparency in the supply chains, it is currently almost impossible to tell which mines the minerals come from that end up in which brands of car.

When electric cars violate human rights

In many places, the global race for transition minerals is leading to accelerated authorisation procedures for new mines. This fast pace brings major ecological and social risks, as potential negative impact on people and the environment is not sufficiently investigated in advance.

In the mining of lithium and copper, for instance, the high water consumption can lead to increased water scarcity in the affected regions. In the case of cobalt, nickel and manganese, there is a high risk of heavy metals polluting waterbodies, and of humans and animals being poisoned.

Indigenous communities in particular are being confronted with a new wave of resource mining. One 2023 study shows that more than half of projects for the extraction of transition minerals are located on or near Indigenous territories.

However, Indigenous communities are not being adequately included in these projects, due to the time pressure. Although the UN recognises Indigenous communities’ right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) with regard to projects that affect their land and lives, this right is repeatedly violated.

It is not only people on Indigenous land who are affected by the race for transition minerals: The government of the People’s Republic of China is aiming for a leading position in the production of electric cars and is home to two heavyweights in the market – the battery manufacturer CATL and the car manufacturer Build Your Dreams. This is worrying for two reasons: Firstly, China’s largest lithium reserves are located under the Tibetan Plateau. A 2023 report shows the increasing pressure to extract these raw materials from the ground and the lack of inclusion of the Tibetan population. Secondly, the processing of lithium has links to Uyghur forced labour in the region of East Turkestan (in Chinese: Xinjiang), where the Chinese Communist Party pursues a brutal policy of oppression.

Statement Tibet Mining

"While the occupation stands - no mining on tibetan lands!" - Statement of Tibetan Youth Association in Europe Vereins Tibeter Jugend in Europa (VTJE)

Indigenous communities raise awareness about the impact of the proposed lithium mine at Peehee Mu'huh on their sacred burial site, water resources, and wildlife. Photo: Chanda Callao/@Peopleofredmountain

Indigenous communities raise awareness about the impact of the proposed lithium mine at Peehee Mu'huh on their sacred burial site, water resources, and wildlife. Photo: Chanda Callao/@Peopleofredmountain

"This is Sami land!" Andrei Danilov from the indigenous exile organization ICIPR.

"This is Sami land!" Andrei Danilov from the indigenous exile organization ICIPR.

Norilsk, Russia: A large amount of harmful emissions significantly impairs the environment.

Norilsk, Russia: A large amount of harmful emissions significantly impairs the environment. Photo: Clubclose

Rizwana Ilham, President of the Uyghur Association Switzerland: "No products from forced labor!"

Rizwana Ilham, President of the Uyghur Association Switzerland: "No products from forced labor!"

Nornickel: Nickel production in Russia is poisoning the air, soil and water

In Russia, the resource company Nornickel is mining raw materials on Indigenous territory. This includes materials that are being used for the energy transition. However, the consequences for the environment and local Indigenous communities are devastating: The operation of smelters is causing polluted air and acid rain, which threatens the fragile tundra ecosystem and thus the Indigenous communities’ traditional way of life. The company has repeatedly made headlines with environmental disasters: In 2020, for example, around 21,000 tonnes of diesel oil flowed into surrounding waters, with devastating consequences for the Indigenous communities, for whom fishing is among their main sources of income.

Read more on Nornickel

Peehee Mu’huh: Lithium mining in the USA destroying sacred site

In the USA, a lithium mine is being built (for electric cars, among other things) on Indigenous territory without the consent of the Paiute and Shoshone communities. Construction of the mine in the Peehee Mu’huh area (also known as Thacker Pass) in the state of Nevada began in March 2023. The Indigenous communities are putting up resistance though. The mine is not only destroying their land, but also erasing their history, because Peehee Mu’huh was the scene of a terrible massacre of the Paiute by the US cavalry in 1865, and is a sacrosanct burial site with centuries of cultural and religious significance. The mine is now destroying this extremely important place. Centuries-old problems are thus being perpetuated – this time in the name of the green transition. “If we don’t do something against construction of the mine,” writes Gary McKinney of the Shoshone and Paiute, “we’re going to lose more than resources and minerals: We will lose our history, which we cannot get back.”

Read more

The Chinese government is promoting the production of batteries for electric cars in the East Turkestan region (in Chinese: Xinjiang) in its 14th Five-Year Plan (2020-2025). This economic strategy is part of a broader Chinese Communist Party strategy, aimed at assimilating the Uyghurs and other Turkic communities in the region. Camp systems and various forms of forced labour are key components of the associated policy of oppressionA report by Sheffield Hallam University shows possible links between electric battery suppliers and forced labour. The state-owned Xinjiang Nonferrous Metal Industry Group, among others, is playing a central role. This company removes people from rural parts of East Turkestan and puts them in its factories as workers. Via its subsidiaries, it is active in the processing of lithium metal and in the mining and processing of manganese. The report shows possible links to the market leader for lithium-ion batteries in China: The firm CATL is a supplier to renowned international brands, such as Tesla, VW and Mercedes.

Repression in East Turkestan

Resource mining in Tibet

China is the world’s most important producer of electric batteries. The Chinese car manufacturer Build Your Dreams (BYD) is also one of the largest producers of electric cars, last year selling almost as many cars as market leader Tesla. For the manufacture of the batteries, the producers need large quantities of lithium, among other things. In order for the People’s Republic to consolidate its position as a leading force in e-mobility, the government wants to massively intensify the mining of the country’s own lithium reserves and thus to become as independent as possible from the global lithium trade.

Around 85 percent of China’s lithium deposits are located in the hard rock of the Tibetan Plateau. The discovery of these huge reserves is causing an economic race for land in Tibet: In May 2023, thousands of bids from Chinese investors were registered for land in Tibet’s lithium-rich areas, at a hundred times the usual market prices.

While the development of Tibet for lithium mining is being negotiated at national level, Tibetans have nearly no say in what happens to their land. According to researchers from Turquoise Roof, there is a lot of grazing land for traditional yak herding in the affected areas, as well as important religious sites. Tibetans who express concerns about the resource mining, or protest against it, face state persecution, imprisonment, violence or even death.

Lithium mining brings numerous dangers for people and the environment. Researchers from Turquoise Roof say that it significantly changes the ecosystem in these areas and that the substances produced during lithium extraction jeopardise the environment. In 2016, for example, toxic substances were released into rivers in Sichuan Province several times after leaks from the mine Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium, poisoning the ecosystem and causing disease in farmers’ animals. In the race for the valuable reserves, quick, cheap and dirty methods are increasingly being used for mining and processing, which pollute the local environment and put people in danger.

Rating shows that the car industry is not enough protecting human rights

The international network Lead The Charge, in which the STP is involved, encourages car manufacturers to use the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) as an opportunity to make their supply chains equitable, sustainable and 100 percent free of fossil fuels.

On February 27th 2024, Lead The Charge presented its second leader board: This analyses the publicly available reports from 18 of the world’s leading electric car manufacturers, and assesses their efforts to eliminate emissions, environmental damage and human rights violations from their supply chains.

While the leader board shows that several companies are working to ensure clean supply chains and to protect human rights, their efforts are still inadequate: Ford, which comes out on top in the area of human rights, only meets 54 % of the network’s requirements.

In particular, the manufacturers are doing far too little with regard to Indigenous rights: More than half of the car manufacturers scored 0 percent in this area and even the frontrunner, Tesla, scored just 26 percent

It is also striking how poorly the Chinese manufacturers Build Your Dreams, Chery, GAC and Geely perform: Due to their complete lack of transparency, they fall far behind in the area of human rights.

See table

What the STP and its partners are calling for

Yes’ to an equitable mobility transition without greenwashing!

Demands directed at car brands and Swiss car importers:

  • Enshrine Indigenous rights and FPIC in internal guidelines
  • No business relations with East Turkestan
  • No sourcing of raw materials in Tibet

Demands directed at Swiss politicians:

  • Reduce demand for raw materials
  • Recycle raw materials from electric cars
  • Promote public transport and bicycles
  • Corporate responsibility law in Switzerland

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