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Why Elon Musk Won't Save Us

Volvo truck workers on strike

By Lee Wengraf - Tempest, June 29, 2021

At Volvo Trucks North America in Dublin, Virginia, picket lines stretch along Cougar Trail Road at the entrances to the 300-acre New River Valley assembly plant. Around 2,900 members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2069 have been on strike since June 7 in this small town in the southwestern corner of the state near the West Virginia border. It’s their second strike this year. Just two months ago in April, workers walked out for two weeks after voting down a tentative agreement by a whopping 91 percent. The union went back to the table and again the membership turned down the deal, this time by a 90 percent margin, a resounding rejection.

At stake in the agreement are critical issues around the two-tier wage structure, work schedule and overtime, health and safety, and employee and retiree healthcare benefits, among others. The company claims they’ve offered “significant economic improvements for all UAW-represented workers,” but in reality the proposed 12 percent raise over six years falls well below the current rate of inflation. The latest agreement also calls for higher copays and out-of-pocket expenses from employees, including a doubling of the out-of-pocket maximum over the life of the contract. The last contract amounted to hundreds of dollars of added costs for retirees per month, according to a striker family member. The company hasn’t tried to sugarcoat these givebacks, stating bluntly on their website, “The hard truth is that there’s likely not a company left in the United States that can guarantee its people – hourly or salaried – that they won’t have to worry about retiree health care costs, even after 30 or more years of work.”

The union is fighting to abolish a two-tier wage system introduced in previous contracts. Although Volvo claims it will get rid of the tiers “over a reasonable time frame,” members 
with two years or fewer seniority still wouldn’t reach top pay over the life of the contract. The company is also pushing to change the work schedule to four 10-hour shifts, a move that would cut into overtime pay. Finally, the rejected agreement removed the union’s right to strike at the end of the proposed six-year deal in 2027.

Growth of ZEV’s impacts trucks, buses – and their drivers too

By Elizbeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 17, 2021

The International Energy Agency released its annual Global Electric Vehicle Outlook report for 2021 in April, providing data, historical trends and future projections. Despite the pandemic, there was a 41% increase in electric vehicle registrations in 2020 – compared to a 16% contraction of the overall global automobile market. There are now more than 10 million electric cars on the world’s roads, and for the first time, Europe overtook China as the centre of the global electric car market. In addition, there are roughly 1 million electric vans, heavy trucks and buses globally. A separate forecast by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, as summarized by The Guardian, projects that electric vehicles will reach price parity with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles by 2027. Another April report from Boston Consulting Group forecasts that zero-emission vehicles will replace ICE vehicles as the dominant powertrain for new light-vehicle sales globally just after 2035.

Most policy discussions of the electrification of transportation focus on the potential for GHG emissions reductions, consumer preferences, and the economic impacts for the automotive industry. There has been a lack of attention on operational workers – with a few exceptions. A 2020 report from the International Labour Organization and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, Jobs in green and healthy transport: Making the green shift , offers modelling of employment impacts in a broad definition of transportation, including personal vehicles, trucks and public transport. It focuses on Europe, and discusses the employment impacts in both manufacturing and operation.

Green Energy, Green Mining, Green New Deal?

Calls for sustainable and responsible mining for the clean energy transition

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 6, 2021

An important Special Report by the International Energy Association was released in May: The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions. Reflecting a mainstream view of the importance of the raw materials for clean technologies such as electric vehicles and energy storage, the IEA provides “ a wealth of detail on mineral demand prospects under different technology and policy assumptions” , and discusses the various countries which offer supply – including Canada. The main discussion is of policies regarding supply chains, especially concerning responsible and sustainable mining, concluding with six key recommendations, including co-ordination of the many international frameworks and initiatives in the area. The report briefly recognizes the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) protocols as internationally significant, and as one of the first to require on-site verification of its standards. The Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) initiative was established in 2004, requiring member companies to “demonstrate leadership by reporting and independently verifying their performance in key environmental and social areas such as aboriginal and community engagement, biodiversity conservation, climate change, tailings management.”

On May 5, the Mining Association of Canada updated one of its TSM protocols with the release a new Climate Change Protocol, a major update to its 2013 Energy Use and GHG Emissions Management Protocol. It is designed “to minimize the mining sector’s carbon footprint, while enhancing climate change disclosure and strengthening the sector’s ability to adapt to climate change.” The Protocol is accompanied by a new Guide on Climate Change Adaptation for the Mining Sector, intended for mine owners in Canada, but with global application. The Guide includes case studies of such mines as the Glencore Nickel mine in Sudbury, the notorious Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories, and the Suncor Millennium tailings pond remediation at its oil sands mine in Alberta. The membership of MAC is a who’s who of Canadian mining and oil sands companies / – including well-known companies such as ArcelorMittal, Barrick Gold, Glencore, Kinross, Rio Tinto, Suncor, and Syncrude. Other documentation, including other Frameworks and progress reports, are compiled at a dedicated Climate Change Initiatives and Innovations in the Mining Industry website.

The demand for lithium, cobalt, nickel, and the other rare earth minerals needed for technological innovation has been embraced, not only by the mining industry, but in policy discussions – recently, by Clean Energy Canada in its March 2021 report, The Next Frontier. The federal ministry of Natural Resources Canada is also supportive, maintaining a Green Mining Innovation Initiative through CanmetMINING , and the government joined the U.S.-led Energy Resource Governance Initiative (ERGI) in 2019 to promote “secure and resilient supply chains for critical energy minerals.”

Alternative points of view have been pointing out the dangers inherent in the new “gold rush” mentality, since at least 2016 when Amnesty International released its 2016 expose of the use of child labour in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most recently, in February 2021, Amnesty released Powering Change: Principles for Businesses and Governments in the Battery Value Chain, which sets out specific principles that governments and businesses should follow to avoid human rights abuses and environmental harm. Other examples: MiningWatch Canada has posted their April 2021 webinar Green Energy, Green Mining, Green New Deal?, which states: “The mining sector is working hard to take advantage of the climate crisis, painting mining as “green” because it supplies materials needed to support the “green” energy transition. But unless demand for both energy and materials are curtailed, environmental destruction and social conflicts will also continue to grow.” MiningWatch Canada published Turning Down the Heat: Can We Mine Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis? in 2020, reporting on a 2019 international conference which focused on the experience of frontline communities. Internationally, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre maintains a Transition Minerals tracker, with ongoing data and reports concerning human and labour rights in the mining of “transition minerals”, and also compiles links to recent reports and articles. Two recent reports in 2021: Recharge Responsibly: The Environmental and Social Footprint of Mining Cobalt, Lithium, and Nickel for Electric Vehicle Batteries (March 2021, Earthworks) and A Material Transition: Exploring supply and demand solutions for renewable energy minerals from the U.K. organization War on Want.

Just transition needed in transit electrification, labor leaders say

By Chris Teale - Utility Dive, April 27, 2021

Dive Brief:

  • As public transit agencies electrify their bus fleets and other vehicles, they must ensure a just transition to protect workers who may be put out of work by the new technologies, transportation labor groups warned Monday.
  • In a joint policy statement, leaders of two unions that represent transportation workers — the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU), alongside the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO (TTD) — said transit agencies should be required to show the workforce impacts of buying electric vehicles (EVs), establish a national workforce training center to train current employees on those systems and guarantee that workers will be represented on task forces and committees around climate change and technology.
  • The groups cautioned that if the federal government fails to mandate worker protections as transit agencies electrify their operations, major job losses could result, while a lack of training programs could leave workers unprepared for the next generation of vehicles.

Read the remainder of the article here.

Government committee recommends further study for support for workers amid transition to electric vehicle production

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, April 16, 2021

The Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development presented their report, The Road Ahead: Encouraging the Production and Purchase Of Zero-Emission Vehicles In Canada to the House of Commons on April 13. The Committee had received eighteen briefs and heard from twenty-one witnesses since the Fall of 2020 – available here. The importance of reducing transportation emissions was accepted, and the topics of discussion included purchase incentives, expanding ev charging infrastructure and the impact on the electricity sector, the potential of hydrogen-powered vehicles, and more. The resulting report makes thirteen recommendations, to which the government is requested to respond. Amongst the recommendations: the existing federal incentive program for EV purchase be continued and expanded to include used EV’s, that the price cap be eliminated, with eligibility geared to income; that the Government of Canada build on existing initiatives, like the Green Mining Innovation program, to improve the environmental performance of Canadian minerals used in battery and hydrogen fuel cell production; and that the federal government work with provincial and territorial governments to develop recycling and end of life management strategies for ZEV batteries.

Recommendation #6 addresses the concerns of workers: “The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada study opportunities to support automotive sector workers while facilities are transitioning to produce ZEVs, and consider dedicated funding to retrain automotive sector workers for ZEV production.”

Most of the input to the Standing Committee was from industry representatives, but the report attributes Recommendation #6 largely to the testimony of Angelo DiCaro, Research Director of Unifor on November 23, 2020. From the report: “Witnesses cautioned that it will be challenging to reorient Canada’s automotive sector to produce ZEVs. It takes time for producers to bring vehicles to market, and to retool facilities and retrain workers to produce ZEVs. Angelo DiCaro suggested that the Government of Canada should ensure that the employment insurance system will support workers during plant retooling. He also noted that the transition to ZEVs could threaten jobs in Canada’s automotive parts sector, especially among businesses that produce parts for the powertrains that propel ICEVs. To compensate, Mr. DiCaro said that Canadian governments should set rules about the afterlife of vehicles that could create jobs in vehicle disassembly and recycling.”

Specifically, when asked later by NDP MP Laurel Collins, “what kind of retraining and income supports do Canadian auto workers need to support a just transition to a zero-emissions future?” DiCaro identified the powertrain segment of the auto parts industry as the most vulnerable, and continued…. “as plants transition, as will happen with Oakville, we have to see how long these transition times will take in our next round of bargaining. I can assure you that, if this is going to be a two-year or a 16-month transition to get that plant retooled, there are going to be questions about income supports for those workers as they retrain and wait for these cars to come online….. This is front and centre. I think the act of collective bargaining gives us an opportunity to explore that. Certainly our employment insurance system and our training systems are going to have to be looked at more carefully.”

How will electrification of vehicles impact auto workers?

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, February 23, 2021

Threats to traditional auto manufacturers are outlined in “The top trends killing the auto industry” in Corporate Knights (Feb. 3), including the climate crisis, the fall of fossil fuels, electrification and autonomous EV fleets, unfunded pension liabilities (US$14.4 billion for G.M., US$10.2 billion for Ford), as well as shifting government policies, and dampened demand in general. All the more reason to celebrate the good news about investment in EV production in Canada by GM, Ford and Fiat-Chrysler , as well as GM’s January 2021 announcement that it will sell only zero emissions vehicles by 2035. In February, Ford announced its target to sell EV’s only in Europe. But the good news is complicated, as described in “Auto industry peers into an electric future and sees bumps ahead” (Washington Post, Feb. 6) , and by “Canada and the U.S. auto sector’s abrupt pivot to electric vehicles” (National Observer, Feb. 15) . For Canada, the challenges include competition for the development of battery technology and the policy challenge of the new “Made in America” Executive Order by President Biden on January 25. Despite the brief and optimistic overview presented in “Jerry on the Job: How the president of Canada’s largest union, Jerry Dias, is driving the country’s electric vehicle push” (Corporate Knights, Feb. 4), our highly integrated North American auto industry has a complicated path forward. 

One of the most important issues ahead is how the conversion to electric vehicles will impact the jobs of current auto workers. In late 2020, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering conducted a detailed study of this issue on behalf of the Sustainability Council of the Volkswagen Group. Employment 2030 Effects Of Electric Mobility And Digitalisation on the Quality and Quantity of Employment at Volkswagen (Nov. 2020) is an English-language summary of the full, detailed study, which modelled the impacts of digitization and electrification in the industry. Although the study is specific to VW production in Germany, its findings are instructive, and include that job losses will be less than anticipated, ( a decrease of 12 percent in this decade, mainly due to planned output volumes and higher productivity). Digitization will result in a need for new skills, “will necessitate a profound change in corporate culture”, and will include higher employee expectations for job flexibility. A summary appearing in Clean Energy Wire states: “ …. there is no uniform employment trend in the ‘transformation corridor’ over the coming decade. Instead, there will be a complex, interconnected mixture of job creation, job upgrading and job cuts. It argues that it will be vital to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) do not fall victim to this reorganisation, and warns that Germany’s automotive sector must establish new forms of cooperation so as not to “recklessly surrender the field of mobility to new market players.” The study is also summarized in a press release by VW (with links to the full study in German).

Lithium, Batteries and Climate Change: The transition to green energy does not have to be powered by destructive and poisonous mineral extraction

By Jonathan Neale - Climate and Capitalism, February 11, 2021

I have spent the last year working on a book called Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs. Most of it is about both the politics and the engineering of any possible transition that can avert catastrophic climate breakdown. One thing I had to think about long and hard was lithium and car batteries.

I often hear people say that we can’t cover the world with electric vehicles, because there simply is not enough lithium for batteries. In any case, they add, lithium production is toxic, and the only supplies are in the Global South. Moreover, so the story goes, there are not enough rare earth metals for wind turbines and all the other hardware we will need for renewable energy.

People often smile after they say those things, which is hard for me to understand, because it means eight billion people will go to hell.

So I went and found out about lithium batteries and the uses of rare earth. What I found out is that the transition will be possible, but neither the politics nor the engineering is simple. This article explains why. I start by describing the situation simply, and then add in some of the complexity.

Lithium is a metal used in almost all electric vehicle batteries today. About half of global production of lithium currently goes to electric vehicles. And in future we will need to increase the production of electric vehicles from hundreds or thousands to hundreds of millions. That will require vast amounts of lithium.

There are three ways to mine lithium. It can be extracted from rock. It can be extracted from the brine that is left over when sea water passes through a desalination plant. Or it can be extracted from those brine deposits which are particularly rich in lithium. These brine deposits are the common way of mining lithium currently, because it is by far the cheapest. Most of the known deposits of lithium rich brine are in the arid highlands where Bolivia, Chile and Argentina come together.

Lithium mining is well established in Chile and Argentina. In both countries the local indigenous people have organized against the mining, but so far been unable to stop it. The mining is toxic, because large amounts of acid are used in the processing. But the mining also uses large amounts of water in places that already has little enough moisture. The result is that ancestral homelands become unlivable.

Bolivia may have even richer deposits of lithium than Argentina and Chile, but mining has not begun there. The Bolivian government had been led by the indigenous socialist Evo Morales from 2006 to 2019. Morales had been propelled to power by a mass movement committed to taking back control of Bolivia’s water, gas and oil resources from multinational corporations. Morales was unable to nationalize the corporations, but he did insist on the government getting a much larger share of the oil and gas revenue.[1]

His government planned to go even further with lithium. Morales wanted to mine the lithium in Bolivia, but he wanted to build factories alongside the mines to make batteries. In a world increasingly hungry for batteries, that could have turned Bolivia into an industrial nation, not just a place to exploit resources.

The Morales government, however, was unable to raise the necessary investment funds. Global capital, Tesla, the big banks and the World Bank had no intention of supporting such a project. And if they had, they would not have done so in conjunction with a socialist like Morales. Then, in 2019, a coup led by Bolivian capitalists, and supported by the United States, removed Morales. Widespread popular unrest forced a new election in October. Morales’ party, the Movement for Socialism won, though Morales himself was out of the running. It is unclear what will happen to the lithium.

That’s one level of complexity. The local indigenous people did not want the lithium mined. The socialist government did not want extractavism, but they did want industrial development.

Those are not the only choices.

For one thing, there are other, more expensive ways of mining lithium. It can be mined from hard rock in China or the United States. More important, batteries do not have to be made out of lithium. Cars had used batteries for almost a century before Sony developed a commercial lithium-ion battery in 1991. Engineers in many universities are experimenting with a range of other materials for building batteries. But even without looking to the future, it would be possible to build batteries in the ways they used to be built. Indeed, in January 2020, the US Geological Service listed the metals that could be substituted for lithium in battery anodes as calcium, magnesium, mercury and zinc.[2]

The reason all manufacturers currently use lithium is that it provides a lighter battery that lasts longer. That gives the car greater range without recharging, and it make possible a much lighter car. In other words, lithium batteries are cheaper.

How “clean” are clean energy and electric vehicles?

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, January 19, 2021

Several articles and reports published recently have re-visited the question: how “clean” is “clean energy”? Here is a selection, beginning in October 2020 with a multi-part series titled Recycling Clean Energy Technologies , from the Union of Concerned Scientists. It includes: “Wind Turbine blades don’t have to end up in landfill”; “Cracking the code on recycling energy storage batteries“; and “Solar Panel Recycling: Let’s Make It Happen” .

The glaring problem with Canada’s solar sector and how to fix it” (National Observer, Nov. 2020) states that “While solar is heralded as a clean, green source of renewable energy, this is only true if the panels are manufactured sustainably and can be recycled and kept out of landfills.” Yet right now, Canada has no capacity to recycle the 350 tonnes of solar pv waste produced in 2016 alone, let alone the 650,000 tonnes Canada is expected to produce by 2050. The author points the finger of responsibility at Canadian provinces and territories, which are responsible for waste management and extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations. A description of solar recycling and waste management systems in Europe and the U.S. points to better practices.

No ‘green halo’ for renewables: First Solar, Veolia, others tackle wind and solar environmental impacts” appeared in Utility Drive (Dec. 14) as a “long read” discussion of progress to uphold environmental and health and safety standards in both the production and disposal of solar panels and wind turbine blades. The article points to examples of industry standards and third-party certification of consumer goods, such as The Green Electronics Council (GEC) and NSF International. The article also quotes experts such as University of California professor Dustin Mulvaney, author of Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice (2019) and numerous other articles which have tracked the environmental impact, and labour standards, of the solar energy industry.

Regarding the recycling of wind turbine blades: A press release on December 8 2020 describes a new agreement between GE Renewable Energy and Veolia, whereby Veolia will recycle blades removed from its U.S.-based onshore wind turbines by shredding them at a processing facility in Missouri, so that they can be used as a replacement for coal, sand and clay in cement manufacturing. A broader article appeared in Grist, “Today’s wind turbine blades could become tomorrow’s bridges” (Jan. 8 2021) which notes the GE- Veoli initiative and describes other emerging and creative ways to deal with blade waste, such as the Re-Wind project. Re-Wind is a partnership involving universities in the U.S., Ireland, and Northern Ireland who are engineering ways to repurpose the blades for electrical transmission towers, bridges, and more. The article also quotes a senior wind technology engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S. who is experimenting with production materials to find more recyclable materials from which to build wind turbine blades in the first place. He states: “Today, recyclability is something that is near the top of the list of concerns” for wind energy companies and blade manufacturers alike …. All of these companies are saying, ‘We need to change what we’re doing, number one because it’s the right thing to do, number two because regulations might be coming down the road. Number three, because we’re a green industry and we want to remain a green industry.’”

These are concerns also top of mind regarding the electric vehicle industry, where both production and recycling of batteries can be detrimental to the planet. The Battery Paradox: How the electric vehicle boom is draining communities and the planet is a December 2020 report by the Dutch Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO). It reviews the social and environmental impacts of the whole battery value chain, (mining, production, and recycling) and the mining of key minerals used in Lithium-ion batteries (lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite and manganese). The report concludes that standardization of battery cells, modules and packs would increase recycling rates and efficiency, but ultimately, “To relieve the pressure on the planet, …. any energy transition strategy should prioritize reducing demand for batteries and cars… Strategies proposed include ride-sharing, car-sharing and smaller vehicles.”

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