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Unsustainable Mining Is Driving the Electric Vehicle Boom

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Electric vehicles are widely being hailed as a key step towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the impact of climate change. This premise is far removed from reality though. As the demand for electric vehicles increases in first-world countries, the race to obtain the necessary materials to manufacture them has damaged the environment and disrupted entire communities. Rather than focusing solely on the benefits of the final product, it is crucial to ensure the entire production cycle of electric vehicles is economically friendly. 

The rising demand for metals used in the production of electric vehicles has promoted invasive mining practices that disproportionately affect indigenous communities, causing environmental degradation and human rights violations. Chile is the second largest producer of lithium, a metal integral for the production of electric vehicle batteries. The methods used to extract lithium are extremely damaging and are done beneath the salt flats of Chile’s Atacama Plateau, where indigenous communities reside. The mining of lithium is causing rivers and lakes to disappear, causing access to water for these communities to become even more difficult in this arid region. 

Access to water is a basic human right, and the exploitative practices of these mining companies deny them this necessity. In the name of profit, these mining companies are robbing communities of a resource essential to living, causing Chilieans to be driven out of their homes. While Chilean communities are directly suffering from the harmful environmental impacts of lithium mining, more affluent countries are profiting from the so-called “green revolution.” 

The revolution refers to the popularity of electric vehicles that produce zero emissions as a clean energy alternative to gasoline cars. The rise of these vehicles is being promoted as a big step towards combating climate change. Yet, the mining practices required to build these vehicles reflect that this revolution is not truly green. Though electric vehicles reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the way they are produced are detrimental to the environment.

Mining companies not only rob countries of their environmental resources but also take advantage of them economically. One lithium mining company, Minera Exar, struck a deal with aboriginal communities for a new mine. While their mining operation is expected to profit $250 million a year, the communities receive annual payments ranging from $9,000 to $60,000. This disparity in profit enables mining companies to strip away a country’s natural resources while they reap almost all of the rewards. The lack of fair labor practices across the supply chain allows for the continuation of this exploitative behavior, leading to social and environmental injustices. 

The negative impacts of lithium mining shown in Chile exemplify a global pattern of exploitation that intersects with other resource extraction industries. Deep seabed mining is another invasive mining practice that causes significant environmental harm. Throughout the seabed are rocks containing copper, nickel and other metals that are vital to build batteries for electric vehicles. The mining process disrupts biodiversity by distorting natural landforms, obstructing aquatic life, and releasing toxic sediments into the water. 

Ironically, these destructive mining practices are justified for the production of electric vehicles, which are promoted as a solution to climate change. Companies are using greenwashing tactics to market these vehicles as “green” and “clean,” while they utilize unsustainable and exploitative practices for the entire manufacturing process. 

Unsustainable, unethical practices are driving clean energy technology’s growth. At its roots, the methods used for extracting lithium and other resources for electric vehicles resemble the exploitative, harmful practices of the coal industry. 

Although green vehicles are hallmarked as part of a new era driven by ensuring ecological and social protection, in reality, the mining of metals still uses traditional mining methods that cause a significant carbon footprint and exploit communities. The distinction between the industry’s public image of sustainability and its actual practices highlights how outdated, exploitative methods persist in the name of profit, regardless of the changing face of the industry. 

Measures to counter the damaging impact of traditional mining methods include incorporating longer-lasting materials into production cycles and establishing a protocol for recovering and reusing materials from used batteries. These methods are insufficient in addressing the central issue of industries taking advantage of a lack of labor laws and protections in other countries.

While President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to incentivize domestic electric vehicle battery production, he has not adequately addressed the damaging effects that these mining processes have on nearby communities. The “paradox of green growth” shows how the current environmental initiatives are being implemented to profit the most wealthy rather than truly supporting the preservation of the environment. 

Fair labor practices need to be implemented globally with a true commitment to ethical and sustainable principles. Environmental protection and social protection are inherently dependent on each other to achieve sustainability. While it is a complex task, international organizations and national governments must work together to hold mining companies accountable and ensure they do not damage surrounding communities. 

By prioritizing fair labor practices and sustainable methods of reusing materials over profit, we can create a green revolution that is invested in improving the world’s environment and social well-being. 

Sriskandha Kandimalla is an Opinion Intern for the winter 2023 quarter. She can be reached at