The federal government has, for the first time, included crucial raw materials needed for the clean energy transition under a list of goods that have child or forced labour in their supply chains.
E&E News was the first to report on the change, which the Biden administration rolled out on Tuesday. The administration this week updated the list of goods, which it has maintained since 2006, with polysilicon, used primarily to make solar panels, as well as cobalt, which is a key input in lithium-ion batteries.
The inclusion of these materials in the report is meant to “[draw] attention to critical supply chains in clean energy,” Thea Mei Lee, the Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs, said in a foreword to the report. “The information is out there for companies and consumers to leverage against regimes that promote and prop up exploitative labour practices.”
The demand for raw materials for solar panels and batteries is projected to skyrocket over the next few years as the clean energy revolution takes hold. The market for cobalt, in particular, is already growing astronomically as the electric vehicle market expands: demand for cobalt increased by 22% in 2021, while some estimates say it could grow 30% by 2025.
But the labour practices surrounding both these materials have serious issues. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is home to around 70% of the world’s cobalt resources, an estimated 40,000 of the 255,000 miners involved in the industry are children, some as young as 6 years old. These children often work 12-hour days — some shifts are as long as 24 hours — for pay as low as a few dollars a day.
Around 45% of the world’s polysilicon of the grade needed to produce solar panels, meanwhile, is produced in the Xinjiang region of China. There, research has shown, the Chinese government is putting tens of thousands of the 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities detained there to work producing various goods, including polysilicon.
Last year, the U.S. banned the import of polysilicon from certain companies in China in order to crack down on the horrific labour practices of that supply chain. The import of products containing cobalt from the DRC, however, remains unregulated — and experts told E&E News in March that they don’t expect to see a similar crackdown on cobalt products. (Some human-rights advocates say that hamstringing the industry would be a huge blow to communities that rely on the mines for income, and that working conditions in DRC cobalt mines, while bad, do not meet the standard for forced labour as is seen in China.)
The Biden administration has been working to boost battery production to jumpstart the clean energy revolution, while simultaneously staying mostly silent on how it plans to deal with the problematic labour and environmental practices of mining for materials used in these batteries. The inclusion of cobalt in this report without any plans for a hard ban on imports could effectively create the appearance of a toothless strategy on the problems with mining for clean energy, experts told E&E.
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