GUNASEKARA: California’s Electric Vehicle Craze Is Fueling Child Labor

Mandy Gunasekara Contributor
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Many of today’s conscious consumers try use their pocketbook to effectuate good by purchasing products that have a positive impact on the planet and the people in it. One can buy shoes that help clothe the world, coffee that helps protect the world and fashionable totes that help feed the world. When it comes to purchasing cars marketed as “saving the world” it gets complicated.

High-dollar marketing campaigns have convinced the environmentally conscious that driving around in a zero-emission vehicle can make one look and feel good. While the consumer’s desire is often genuine and laudable, electric vehicle makers, marketers and some of the environmental NGOs that support them are hoping the Zen of an environmentally-sound purchase is enough to outweigh any other concern, including the heartbreaking fact that the growth of the electric vehicle market is exacerbating the problem of child labor in African cobalt mines.

A few weeks ago, this very issue took center stage before the California General Assembly Committee on Transportation in the form of AB-735. The bill would require the local permitting authority — the California Air Resources Board — to certify that vehicles subject to the state’s “zero emission vehicle” mandate are free of any material made using child labor. As the committee report explains, the bill was aimed at ensuring California’s “lofty environmental goals” are not inadvertently exacerbating well-documented and much criticized child labor practices prevalent in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Cobalt is an essential part of lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles. Other products such as cell phones, laptops and “smart” luggage use these batteries as well. However, the much larger quantities required for electric vehicle batteries and the projected growth of the industry has been a key driver of rising cobalt demand. In 2018, investors referred to cobalt as the “hottest metal on the planet” after demand had nearly tripled and many analysts project demand to double again by 2020.

While cobalt is mined all over the world, close to 60 percent of the global supply comes from the DRC. According to UNICEF and Amnesty International, around 40,000 children are involved in cobalt mining in the DRC where they make a few dollars a day. An investigative look found that work in the African mining operations begins as early as four-years old where children can pick cobalt out of a pile. At 10, hard labor begins when children are forced to carry heavy sacks of cobalt on their backs to rivers for washing.

Californians purchase and drive more electric vehicles than any other state. Taking a lead to ensure that the state’s environmental progress is not being built on the backs of impoverished African children makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, AB-735 failed. Eleven members of the Transportation Committee relied on a bevy of arguments to ensure the bill did not pass.

According to the bill’s analysis, the crux of the arguments raised during the debate were as follows: the bill could imperil California’s climate goals; it would be really hard; making cars is a long-term process; the regulatory body assigned the responsibility of certification is not appropriate; it would require a lot of work; lots of other industries use child labor too; and it would not effectively address the issue.

Notably missing from the arguments was any claim that the problem the bill seeks to address was not true. In legalese this is referred to as an admission by omission. Instead of figuring out a way to constructively address the issue, legislators stood behind a series of seemingly logical arguments to wash their hands of it.

The hard truth is that the electric vehicle market is exacerbating child labor atrocities abroad. As a country, we are at a critical juncture where we can either continue to find justifications to turn a blind eye to this inconvenient truth or do something about it. While California proved uninterested, every other state could propose a similar bill. Congress could also consider how to ensure the taxpayer-funded electric vehicle tax credit is not a part of the problem either.

In a world of conscious consumers and a prevailing woke mentality to take injustices head-on, this presents the perfect opportunity to ensure environmental progress is not at the behest of other virtuous causes. If we can source a coffee bean to its exact longitude and latitude to ensure it is harvested by sustainable practices, then there is no reason we cannot do the same for a critical mineral to ensure its not mined by children.

Mandy Gunasekara is the founder of the Energy 45 Fund.  She previously served as a senior official in President Trump’s EPA and was a former counsel to the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.