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Making workers heard along the battery supply chain

By D'Arcy Briggs - Spring, July 7, 2022

The battery supply chain is growing fast, fuelled by the increasing demand for electric vehicles (EV), and with that the creation of new jobs. In Europe alone, employment related to the EV industry is estimated to increase by 500,000 to 850,000 by 2030. The auto industry has a relatively high level of unionized workers, but the number decreases along the supply chain, where workers’ rights violations, as well as forced and child labour, increase.

Every region makes up different parts of the battery supply chain. There is a lithium triangle in Latin America, most mining is done in Africa, Asia Pacific is seeing new battery investments and there is booming investment in electric vehicles in North America and Europe.

United Mine Workers Partner for 350 Electric Battery Jobs in West Virginia

By staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 2022

The United Mine Workers just announced that it will partner with energy startup SPARKZ to build an electric battery factory in West Virginia in 2022 that will employ 350 workers. The UMWA will recruit and train dislocated miners to be the factory’s first production workers.

“We need good, union jobs in the coalfields no matter what industry they are in,” said UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Brian Sanson. “This is a start toward putting the tens of thousands of already-dislocated coal miners to work in decent jobs in the communities where they live.”

The first markets for the company’s batteries are expected to be for material handling vehicles like forklifts, agricultural equipment, and energy storage.

Source: bit.ly/UMWAEnergyJobs

A Green New Deal for Transportation: Establishing New Federal Investment Priorities to Build Just and Sustainable Communities

By Yonah Freemark, Billy Fleming, Caitlin McCoy, Rennie Meyers, Thea Riofrancos, Xan Lillehei, and Daniel Aldana Cohen - Climate and Community Project, February 2022

The transportation system is the connective tissue that transforms pockets of communities into a networked society. It links home, school, work, and play. It drives economic growth, social mobility, and employment opportunities. 

The transportation sector currently emits more carbon pollution than any other sector in the US economy. The automobiles we drive, the trucks, trains, and ships that deliver our goods, the airline flights we take, and other transportation activities account for about 28 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. The passage of President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is replete with new funding for state and local highway expansion, and seems likely to further exacerbate the sector’s emissions. More than 120 years after electric vehicles briefly achieved popularity in the 1900s, petroleum products still power over 91 percent of today’s transportation system. Americans collectively drive more than three trillion vehicle miles per year, most of those as a single driver in an automobile. Life in the United States is organized around personal automobiles powered by petroleum. For a Green New Deal in transportation to be possible, that has to change. A climate-safe future requires a swift and just decarbonization of the transportation sector, a major expansion of public and active transportation, and the parallel decarbonization of the electricity sector.

Transportation often exacerbates social inequity and racial injustice within and between communities. Its infrastructure speeds the movement of those who are better off, to the detriment of those who are most in need. In far too many communities, governments, planners, and engineers prioritize vehicles over people and efficiency in travel time at the cost of quality of life. Choices made by elected officials and transportation agencies about how funds are allocated at the federal, state, and local levels have played a major role in reinforcing these outcomes over the past century.

In 2021, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – the centerpiece of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework. It provides substantial new funds for intra-city public transit, intercity passenger rail, and new electric vehicle charging infrastructure. It also includes $7.5 billion in new discretionary funding for innovative transit projects in the RAISE program (formerly BUILD and TIGER), along with new incentives for roadway repair and maintenance. However, the bill also allocates $350 billion towards new road and highway projects that will be administered by state and local departments of transportation. Much of this funding is likely to be spent on highway expansion projects. In short, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is poised to invest in a small number of innovative, low-carbon public transit projects alongside a massive new investment in roads and highways – locking in higher emissions for the sector than those that predated the bill. In other words, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act could invest dramatically more on highway expansion than on innovative, low-carbon public transit projects. That dynamic has to change.

In this report, we propose a series of critical opportunities for new transportation-related policies to improve equal access, mobility, and opportunity in our transportation system, reduce emissions, support global climate cooperation, and develop long-lasting infrastructure and workforce development strategies on a changing planet. We argue for a move away from past policies that encouraged the release of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants while furthering social inequity. Crucially, this report aims to shift the conversation surrounding the transportation sector and decarbonization from focusing exclusively on electric vehicles and high-speed rail to addressing the many disparate parts of America’s transportation system. This includes a focus on intra- and intercity rail in addition to high-speed rail; an approach to electric vehicles that pairs supply-side policies (e.g. manufacturing tax credits) with a more progressive demand-side approach that benefits low and middle-income households with few public transit options instead of wealthy, coastal city residents who tend to purchase high-end luxury electric vehicles (e.g. Tesla).

Instead, the transportation system should be viewed as a strategic lever for investing in good-paying low-carbon jobs, justice, and a decarbonized economy. We build on the important progress Congress members have made through their introduction of bills such as the Moving Forward Act to identify a series of policies that would further that ambition.

Read the text (PDF).

Boiling Point: Unions Clash with Solar Industry

By Gary Coronado - Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2021

Until recently, I had never heard of the Contractors State License Board, or CSLB. It’s a California agency that regulates the construction industry, with a goal of protecting public health and safety. Most of its 15 members are appointed by the governor.

Why am I telling you this? Because CSLB sent shock waves through the solar industry this summer when it ruled that rooftop solar companies would no longer be allowed to install batteries — an increasingly popular tool for keeping the lights on during blackouts — without getting a new license that might require them to overhaul their workforce. Solar industry leaders were apoplectic, saying the new requirement would be impossible to meet and would crash the market. They filed a lawsuit to block it.

The groups pushing the rule change framed it as a safety issue. By requiring solar companies to use certified electricians to handle battery installations, they’ve argued, state officials can limit the risk of lithium-ion battery fires, explosions and other hazards.

So on the surface, at least, this is a technical dispute over battery safety and workforce training requirements. But just below the surface lurks a long-simmering conflict between the rooftop solar industry and organized labor.

If that sounds familiar, well, you probably read my latest story (which I still hope you’ll subscribe to The Times to access, if you haven’t already), or last week’s edition of Boiling Point. In both pieces, I noted that most rooftop solar jobs are nonunion, unlike most jobs building large-scale solar farms. It’s a reality that has created constant tension in California, with politically powerful electrical and building trades unions pushing lawmakers to support big solar farms at the expense of rooftop installations.

Exploitation of Workers in DR Congo Taints Electric Vehicles

By Arthur Svensson - Industri Energi, November 8, 2021

The acceleration of electrical vehicles (EV) production is crucial for the transition to a low-carbon economy, yet it appears to be linked to serious labour rights abuses. New research released today reveals dire conditions, discrimination and extremely low pay at some of the world’s largest industrial cobalt mines operated by multinational mining companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt is considered an essential mineral in the lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles. Over 70% of the world’s cobalt is extracted in Congo.

Cobalt is everywhere. It is a silvery-blue mineral used in the rechargeable batteries that power our mobile phones, laptops and tablets, and in larger quantities, the electric vehicles that will soon dominate our roads. It is a strategic mineral in the plan to decarbonise and move away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. Accelerating this switch is one of the priorities to tackle the climate crisis and industry experts forecast that electric vehicle sales will skyrocket in the next 10 years. This will require a dramatic increase in cobalt production. The booming demand for cobalt has a dark side, however.

The 87-page report"The Road to Ruin? Electric vehicles and workers’ rights abuses at Congo’s industrial cobalt mines” by by corporate watchdog Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID), and Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire (CAJJ), a Congolese legal aid centre specialised in labour rights, exposes a system of widespread exploitation. Congolese workers at five industrial mines in Congo where cobalt is produced: Kamoto Copper Company (KCC), Metalkol RTR, Tenke Fungurume Mining (TFM), Sino-Congolaise des Mines (Sicomines) and Société Minière de Deziwa (Somidez) were interviewed for the research. They said they received very low pay and were subjected to excessive working hours, degrading treatment, violence, discrimination, racism, unsafe working conditions, and a disregard for even basic health provision.

Some workers described being kicked, slapped, beaten with sticks, insulted, shouted at, or pulled around by their ears. Others reported severe discrimination and abuse at Chinese-operated mines. One worker said, “Our situation is worse than before. The Chinese come and impose their standards and culture. They don’t treat Congolese well. This is new colonisation.”

(TUED Working Paper #14) Beyond Disruption: How Reclaimed Utilities Can Help Cities Meet Their Climate Goals

By Sean Sweeney and John Treat - Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, November 3, 2021

In TUED Working Paper 14, Beyond Disruption: How Reclaimed Utilities Can Help Cities Meet Their Climate Goals, Sean Sweeney and John Treat showcase how the energy transition that was promised has yet to come to fruition. They argue specifically the arguments around cities leading the transition have not been fully accurate and provide a sober analysis of where we stand.

As Sweeney and Treat argue, “the incumbent energy companies will not be dis­rupted out of existence; rather, they will remain dominant as market players and, under the current neoliberal framework, they will help perpetuate an energy for profit regime. If this is not changed, then cities will not be able to reach their energy and decarbonization targets. There is a need, therefore, to develop an alternative approach, one that goes beyond disruption (in a politi­cal sense).”

Through the piece they outline an “alternative approach that is offered shifts attention away from disruption of the incumbent companies toward the need to focus efforts on reclaiming these companies to public ownership.”

This Working Paper, released during COP 26 in Glasgow provides a clear-eyed analysis of the challenges ahead but also highlights an alternative public-goods approach to overcoming the worst of the crisis. Download the PDF here.

Read the text (PDF).

The Road to Ruin? - Electric vehicles and workers’ rights abuses at DR Congo’s industrial cobalt mines

By staff - Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) and the Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire (CAJJ), November 2021

Cobalt is everywhere. It is a silvery-blue mineral used in the rechargeable batteries that power our mobile phones, laptops and tablets, and in larger quantities, the electric vehicles that will soon dominate our roads. It is a strategic mineral in the plan to decarbonise and move away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. Accelerating this switch is one of the priorities to tackle the climate crisis and industry experts forecast that electric vehicle sales will skyrocket in the next 10 years. This will require a dramatic increase in cobalt production.

The booming demand for cobalt has a dark side, however. The Democratic Republic of Congo, one of Africa’s poorest nations, holds the lion’s share of the world’s cobalt reserves. In 2020, 70% of the world’s cobalt was extracted from within its borders with tens of thousands of workers labouring in large-scale industrial mines to dig up the ore. Multinational mining companies that own many of Congo’s mines, eager to demonstrate their “green” and “responsible” credentials, say they produce “clean” and “sustainable” cobalt, free from human rights abuses, and that their operations contribute to good jobs and economic opportunities.

This report, based on extensive research over two years, paints a very different picture. It shows dire conditions for many Congolese workers in the industrial mines, often characterised by widespread exploitation and labour rights abuses. Many workers do not earn a “living wage” – the minimum remuneration to afford a decent standard of living – have little or no health provision, and far too often are subjected to excessive working hours, unsafe working conditions, degrading treatment, discrimination and racism.

In recent years attention has mainly focused on Congo’s artisanal mining sector, partly because of the risks of child labour it creates, whereas the conditions for workers in the large-scale industrial mines have gone largely unnoticed. This report examines workers’ rights at Congo’s industrial mines where the large majority of cobalt is coming from, producing some 80% of the cobalt exported from the country (in contrast to the 20% produced in artisanal mines).

The findings presented in this report are based on detailed research over 28 months by UK-based corporate watchdog Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) and the Centre d’Aide Juridico- Judiciaire (CAJJ), a Congolese legal aid centre specialised in labour rights. The research team carried out extensive field research in and around Kolwezi, a mining town where many of Congo’s cobalt and copper mines are located. It is informed by 130 interviews of workers and former workers at five mining companies, as well as interviews with subcontractors, union representatives, lawyers, Congolese local authorities, medical staff and industry experts.

Read the text (PDF).

Clean Power to the People

By Al Weinrub - Organizing Upgrade, October 27, 2021

As predicted, the climate has been screaming out with intensified ferocity at the assault on the earth by the global fossil fuel economy. Extreme weather conditions are wreaking havoc on communities across the world, leading many climate activists in the U.S. and elsewhere to declare a climate emergency, requiring an urgent, intensified transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

But thinking of this transition as mainly a shift in energy technology, as de-carbonizing the economy, is to misunderstand the deep roots of the climate crisis in an extractive economic system based on racialized social and economic inequality.

Emphasizing de-carbonization of energy without broad institutional transformation—an approach called carbon fundamentalism—leaves us still at the mercy of the corporate energy establishment. That approach, as we shall see, is actually amplifying the already devastating impacts of the climate crisis. “It ignores the specific needs of people of color, it promotes programs that force low-income people to pay unfairly for carbon reduction, it exposes our communities to increased risks, and it sacrifices justice in the urgent rush to reduce carbon,” says Jessica Tovar of the Local Clean Energy Alliance. “Time and again, it ends up throwing people of color under the bus.”

We need more than clean energy to address the climate crisis. We need to move from a large, centralized private utility model to a locally based, decentralized energy model. We need an energy system centered on democracy and justice.

Energy transition or energy expansion?

By Sean Sweeney, John Treat, and Daniel Chavez - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy and Trans National Institute, October 22, 2021

From politicians to corporate executives, media commentators to environmental campaigners, narratives evoking the “unstoppable” progress of a global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy have grown increasingly commonplace.

However, in reality, the global shifts in energy production, energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions we urgently need are not happening:

  • In 2019, over 80% of global primary energy demand came from fossil fuels, with global greenhouse gas emissions at record levels.
  • In 2020, wind and solar accounted for just 10% of global electricity generated.
  • Despite stories of its decline, coal-fired power generation continues to rise globally. In 2020, global efforts to decommission coal power plants were offset by the new coal plants commissioned in China alone, resulting in an overall increase in the global coal fleet of 12.5 GW.

Recently, some have argued that the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent contraction in economic activity signal a turning point. Indeed, global energy demand fell by nearly 4% in 2020, while global energy-related CO2 emissions fell by 5.8% — the sharpest annual decline since the second world war.

Despite these short-term shifts, the pandemic has failed to result in any significant long-term changes for the energy sector or associated emissions:

  • Global energy-related CO2 emissions are projected to grow by 4.8% in 2021, the second highest annual rise on record.
  • Demand for all fossil fuels is set to rise in 2021.6 A 4.6% increase in global energy demand is forecast for 2021, leaving demand 0.5% higher than 2019 levels.
  • By the end of 2020 electricity demand had already returned to a level higher than in December 2019, with global emissions from electricity higher than in 2015.
  • By the end of 2020, global coal demand was 3.5% higher than in the same period in 2019. A 4.5% rise in coal demand is forecast for 2021, with coal demand increasing 60% more than all renewables growth combined and undoing 80% of the 2020 decline.
  • Oil demand is forecast to rebound by 6% in 2021, the steepest rise since 1976. By 2026, global oil consumption is projected to reach 104.1 million barrels per day (mb/d), an increase of 4.4 mb/d from 2019 levels.

As such, an energy transition with the depth and speed necessary for meeting the 2015 Paris Agreement shows no sign of materializing. Indeed, most of the world’s major economies are not on track to reach their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) on emissions reductions.

These facts point to a clear conclusion: the dominant, neoliberal climate policy paradigm, which deploys a “sticks and carrots” approach that attempts to disincentivize fossil fuels through carbon pricing, while promoting low-carbon investment through subsidies and preferential contractual arrangements has been completely ineffective. This policy paradigm positions governments as guardians and guarantors of the profitability of private actors, thus preventing them from addressing social or environmental challenges head-on.

Read the text (PDF).

A Green Shift? Mining and Resistance in Fennoscandia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Sápmi

Mirko Nikolic, Editor, et. al. - Yes to Life, No to Mining, September 2021

This report from Yes to Life, No to Mining Network (YLNM) explores how and why many nations – and the mining industry – are re-framing mining as a solution to climate change in order to facilitate domestic extraction of so-called ‘strategic’, ‘critical’ and ‘transition’ minerals required for renewable energy, military and digital technologies. 

Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish authorities have granted concessions for tens of thousands of hectares of land, with mining pressure increasing particularly dramatically in Sápmi – the home territory of the Indigenous Sámi Peoples. 

YLNM’s new research examines state and corporate claims that mining in Europe represents a gold standard of regulation and corporate practice that justifies creating new mining sacrifice zones in the name of climate action.

Without exception, the authors – in all nations – report a vast gap between this rhetoric and the realities of mining at Europe’s new extractive frontiers, highlighting systemic rights violations and ecological harm.

Read the text (PDF).

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