The world faces a growing demand for critical minerals to meet expanding demand for clean energy and low-carbon technologies and to fuel the transition to cleaner energy futures (Bazilian 2018, Lèbre et al 2020, Sovacool et al 2020a). Electric vehicles (EVs) in particular will play a key role in decarbonizing the transportation systems. In the 2014–19 period, EVs sales have expanded by an annual average of 60%. The EVs minerals include graphite, cobalt, nickel, manganese, copper, lithium, aluminum, and rare earths. Given the current low recovery and recycling rate, most of the mineral supply will need to come from virgin materials, leading to an expansion of mining. Today, most critical mineral extractive activities take place in the Global South, while the majority of these minerals are embedded in products consumed in the industrial and urbanized Global North (e.g. US, Canada, Europe, Japan).
Nevertheless, there are growing concerns over the socio-environmental impacts of mineral extraction, and a new recognition that these issues need to be addressed if EVs are to be promoted as sustainable technology. For example:
- Amnesty International has identified the use of child labor in cobalt production in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which produces over 60% of today’s supply, presenting an ethical issue for the industry (Amnesty International 2016)
- Nickel mining is causing environmental degradation to freshwater and marine ecosystems in Indonesia. Some of these areas are already weakened ecologically by demand for timber, and mining is putting additional habitat pressure on critically endangered species (Dominish et al 2019).
- Lithium mining activities in Chile are resulting in degraded environmental quality too, threatening the habitat and livelihood of endangered flamingo birds (Agusdinata et al 2018, Liu et al 2019).
Practitioners and policymakers are now raising questions about how to systematically address the emerging issues associated with critical minerals, and what role science can play in providing a clear and consistent framework for governing their use (Ali et al 2017).