2021 October 26

Moving Beyond Technological Solutions to the Climate Crisis

Today, just six days before the start of the UN Climate Change Conference, COP 26, Electronics Watch releases two films focusing on the mining of nickel, a key mineral for batteries in electric vehicles and renewable energy infrastructure. Produced in collaboration with Pacific Asia Resource Center and Friends of the Earth, Japan, with support from Bread for All, A Cry from Palawan - The Environmental and Social Cost of Energy Transition and What is at Stake Behind the Energy Transition? - The Real Cost of Nickel Mining in the Philippines vividly demonstrate the need for a Just Transition to achieve the climate goals.

We face a climate paradox: the same industries that are necessary to save the climate also threaten the climate. Batteries are essential to the climate transition. According to the Global Battery Alliance and World Economic Forum, batteries can enable us to make 30% of the carbon reductions required in the transport and power sectors under the Paris agreement. The batteries in electric vehicles require minerals such as nickel, cobalt and lithium and depend on semiconductors. Thus, both mining and semiconductor industries are key to meeting our climate goals. But mining of key minerals for batteries has destroyed local habitats and caused deforestation. The semiconductor industry requires huge amounts of energy and water. Both industries generate hazardous waste.

Electronics Watch also finds severe worker rights violations in both industries. Semiconductors are manufactured in Malaysia, Taiwan and China where forced labour related to migrant worker recruitment is a concern. The backend (testing and assembly) semiconductor factories use hundreds of toxic chemicals placing workers and communities at risk. The mining for essential minerals also often exposes workers to unsafe working conditions. They may face reprisals if they seek to protect their communities and local environments and stand up for their rights.

When these essential industries for the energy transition both help and cause harm, technological solutions to the climate crisis are elusive. But our question is: Can we help resolve the climate paradox by strengthening community and worker rights in the mining and semiconductor industry? Put another way: Are lower emissions and respect for the rights of stakeholders two sides of the same coin? We believe the answer is yes.  Thus, the climate crisis requires a social and environmental transformation, not just a technological shift.

The films, “A Cry from Palawan, The Philippines” and “What is at Stake Behind the Energy Transition,” make the case for the social and environmental transition urgently needed today. They point out that the world needs nickel for the energy transition, but it cannot come at the cost of deforestation and destruction of local habitats, such as that seen on this beautiful island, Palawan. Here, a Just Transition would mean that the local indigenous people and the workers have a voice and collective influence over the expansion of the nickel mining areas. They suffer the consequences of destructions of local habitats. They are the people most immediately impacted by the mining operations and, therefore, the ones who most fervently articulate the necessary social and environmental perspective that will benefit not only them but us all.

The idea that those impacted by the development of mines or the conditions in factories must have a meaningful voice in those industries has been firmly embedded in the international trade union movement for centuries. More recently, international instruments governing human rights and environmental due diligence require companies to have effective engagement with stakeholders such as workers and impacted communities to identify adverse impact in supply chains and develop remedy. “Stakeholder engagement” is just the current term in the field of Business and Human Rights for the tradition of social dialogue: effective two-way communication and negotiation between or among representatives of employers and workers (and sometimes governments) on issues of common interest.

To realise the potential of batteries, effective social dialogue based on the values of global interdependence and solidarity must be a key part of the fundamental social and environmental transformation we now need.  The time for workers and affected communities in Palawan and elsewhere to be able to influence and shape their local environments is now. Our common climate depends on it.