EV Battery Mining and Pollution in Indonesia


EV Battery Mining and Pollution in Indonesia

With China’s support, Indonesia’s EV battery mining practices are scarring landscapes, polluting air and harming communities. Will the industry act to end these practices?

01 March 2023 – by Heba Hashem   Comments (0)

China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, aims to reach net-zero emissions by 2060. But, how does a country that burns more coal than the rest of the world combined get to carbon neutrality?

Part of China’s 2030 climate targets is to lower its carbon intensity by over 65% from the 2005 level. It also plans to increase the non-fossil fuel share in its electricity supply to around 39% by 2030, up from around 29%.

Decarbonising transport is not explicitly part of China’s climate commitments, and the country has not joined the EV transition declaration. This is despite the fact that China’s transport sector is the second-biggest consumer of energy after industry.

However, the country is eyeing a 40% domestic EV sales share of total vehicles by 2030. China is already the world’s biggest EV market, accounting for two-thirds of global sales in 2022. Of the world’s 10 best-selling EV brands, half are Chinese.

After decades of subsidies, investments and infrastructure spending, China’s EV market has become purely demand-driven. EVs in the country are now cheaper than petrol cars. In 2022, EV sales in China surged by 93.4% year over year.

Even if decarbonisation is not behind China’s EV market growth, the trend will contribute to its net-zero goals. The arrival of affordable Chinese EVs is equally positive for global climate change mitigation efforts.

Phaseout of Fossil-fuelled Cars Accelerates EV Adoption

China is not the only country moving towards an EV-only future. Countries like CanadaJapan and EU nations are all gearing up to phase out fossil-fuelled cars from 2035. Canada has mandated that at least 20% of car sales by 2026 be for EVs. This percentage will increase to 60% by 2030.

Singapore and South Korea also plan to ban new sales of diesel vehicles from 2025.

Raw Materials for EV Batteries Cause Huge Concerns

EVs are central to decarbonisation. But, mining for the minerals in EV batteries carries harsh environmental and social costs.

“Most consumers only know electric vehicles’ ‘clean’ aspects,” Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD’s director of international trade, said. “The dirty aspects of the production process are out of sight,” she added.

Lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese are the most common ingredients in EV batteries. These minerals are concentrated in countries like Chile, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and South Africa.

However, many of these developing countries have lax environmental and human rights laws, which large corporations are taking advantage of.

EV Batteries Linked to Child Labour and Toxic Leaks

South America’s Lithium Triangle, for example, holds more than 75% of the world’s mineral supply. The area, which covers parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, is also one of the driest on the planet. This is a major problem, as lithium mining requires huge amounts of groundwater to pump brine from drilled wells. Extracting 1 tonne of lithium requires around 2.2 million litres of water.

Lithium extraction also involves the use of toxic chemicals that pollute the soil and water. In Chile’s Atacama salt flats, lithium mining contaminates and diverts water resources from local communities. These activities have already depleted 65% of the region’s water and jeopardised communities’ access to water.

Cobalt, another essential ingredient in EV batteries, is found worldwide. However, more than 70% comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its deposits provide income for more than 2 million miners.

But, Congo’s cobalt industry has a dark side. The country is home to small-scale unregulated mines where workers extract cobalt by hand, without protective equipment. An estimated 250,000 miners work in these artisanal mines, 40,000 of whom are children. These child labourers work in perilous conditions, crawling into vertical low-oxygen tunnels that are too narrow for adults. They carry heavy sacks of rocks to earn less than USD 2 per day.

Furthermore, cobalt mining releases radioactive emissions and particles that could cause cancer, vision and heart problems. The environment suffers too, particularly from blasting and electricity consumption, which in mining often depend on oil-based fossil fuels. The EV industry is largely responsible, given that half of the world’s cobalt supply goes into EV batteries.

The Price of Indonesia’s EV Battery Aspirations

In Indonesia, nickel extraction is causing tremendous environmental and social damage. Nickel is a key component in long-range EV batteries. It has been seeing more demand, as it offers higher energy density at a lower cost.

As the world’s largest nickel producer, Indonesia has set its sights on the lucrative EV industry. The country aims to become a global nickel mining powerhouse and secure its position in the EV production chain.

With this ambition, Indonesian companies are increasingly partnering with Chinese firms to export refined nickel products. These joint ventures have established several nickel refineries – all running on coal. Indonesia’s industrial parks, which have become major hubs for nickel processing, account for 15% of domestic coal-power output.

Coal-powered processing plants to refine nickel release sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and coal ash, increasing respiratory infections and other health problems.

Nickel mining is also carbon-intensive. Producing nickel from Indonesia’s laterite ore resources releases two to six times more CO2 emissions than nickel from sulphide deposits. Sulphide resources are easier to process than laterite resources. But, companies are developing more laterite projects in Indonesia to meet the rising demand for nickel.

Additionally, waste from nickel mining pollutes water sources and disrupts local fishing industries. In Central Sulawesi and Southeast Sulawesi, nickel mining has resulted in the deforestation of over 500,000 hectares (5,000 km2) of land. It has also released over 178 million tonnes of carbon emissions in these provinces.

China’s EV Demand Fuelling Indonesia’s Nickel Mining Rush

Indonesia’s nickel mining is not likely to slow down anytime soon, given the growth trajectory of China’s EV market. Chinese companies already dominate nickel smelting in Indonesia, which recently provoked violent riots.

China now accounts for nearly 60% of world nickel demand compared with 5.5% in 2000. Moreover, EV sales in the country are forecast to jump by 35% in 2023 to 9 million units. This would account for around a third of total vehicle sales.

Electric Vehicle Industry Needs to Find Better Ways

While EVs are essential for net-zero goals, decarbonising transport should not be at the expense of human lives and the environment.

The industry urgently needs to address its adverse environmental and social impacts by investing in sustainable mining techniques. It could also look into technologies that recycle the raw materials in spent batteries.

As mining for EV components grows, governments need to introduce rules to prevent human rights abuses and environmental harm. The EU’s new law for EV battery producers sets a benchmark in this regard. It provides hope that other jurisdictions could soon follow suit.

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