Why Does New York’s “Just Transition” Ignore Forced and Child Labor? 

Bills working their way through the Legislature indicate that Albany lawmakers are deeply concerned about environmental protection and human rights in the fashion industry and the wood products industry, but—curiously—not in the industries on which New York’s climate policies rely.

As the Empire State seeks to decarbonize its economy, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act promises a “just transition” for displaced workers and residents of disadvantaged communities. But left standing outside this concern for justice is the developing world’s labor force upon whose broken and polluted bodies New Yorkers will build their green future.

The state has set ambitious climate policy goals that require significant increases in the state’s demand for lithium-ion batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines. In the future, all new cars, trucks, and buses will have to be emissions-free. Barring new advances in technology, that means most vehicles will be electric, with batteries containing lithium and, frequently, cobalt.

New York also aims to have 6,000 gigawatts of energy storage by 2030, another technology currently reliant on lithium-ion batteries.

In addition, the state has mandated 10 gigawatts of distributed solar power (as well as promoted utility-scale solar farms) and at least 9 gigawatts of offshore wind power. Minerals used in solar panels and/or the machinery of wind turbines include copper, lead, molybdenum, and nickel, among others. All of these must be mined and processed, which is often done in environmentally and human-unfriendly conditions.

There are several noteworthy examples of the environmental and human rights problems underlying the production of batteries and renewable energy equipment, including

  • reservoirs poisoned by lithium mining, which requires vast amounts of water to extract the mineral from ore;
  • as many as 40,000 children laboring up to 12 hours a day without environmental or safety gear in mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), source of 70 percent of the world’s cobalt;
  • and Uyghurs (Chinese Muslims) working in forced labor camps to produce solar panels (and some still allowed to import to the U.S. despite a purported Biden administration ban).

It’s quite a contrast to think about children laboring in mines half the world away, breathing in toxic dust, so New York kids can breathe a bit easier while riding to school in electric buses.

These problems have been widely noted by the U.S. government, non-governmental organizations and the media.

A recent report by the Congressional Research Service, notes that “an accelerating global transition to EVs” has raised questions about the “potential opportunity for increased human rights abuses, and . . . increased environmental destruction,” while the U.S. State Department has specifically taken notice of forced labor in China and child labor in the DRC.

The Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals, and Sustainable Development says bluntly that “There are human rights and environmental risks associated with all the minerals used in solar PV and lithium-ion batteries. Human rights risks include poor worker health and safety, conflict over land rights with local and Indigenous peoples, and labour rights issues including child labour and forced labour.”

The Business and Human Rights Resource Center lists the major producers of nickel, copper and zinc—each used in both solar panels and wind turbines—and reports that while most have a human rights policy in place, some are the subject of numerous allegations of human rights abuses.

Concerns have also been noted by the International Energy Agency, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the United States Institute of Peace, and have been publicized in numerous news reports.

Despite all this, supporters of New York’s climate policy—proudly proclaimed as the most progressive in the nation, if not the world—seem not to have taken notice.

However, there are some New Yorker legislators who are concerned about environmental destruction and human rights abuses in other economic sectors. Several bills have been introduced in the Legislature this year aiming to require corporate oversight of supply chains to prevent environmental and human rights abuses. Those bills could provide a model for any similarly concerned climate activists.

One example is the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, which would require the fashion industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their direct business activities, as well as among their suppliers and their suppliers’ suppliers. It would also protect human rights by requiring businesses to properly manage the disposal of potentially hazardous wastewater that contains chemicals used to dye fabrics.

Another bill, the New York Deforestation-Free Procurement Act, seeks to limit deforestation by requiring that all state agencies and authorities buying forest product ensure the goods were not “extracted from, grown, derived, harvested, reared, or produced on land where tropical or boreal deforestation or . . . degradation occurred. . .” In addition, the bill would require that the forest lands from which the goods were sourced not have been taken by force from a community that “legally or customarily owns, occupies, or otherwise uses” them, using language from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

And most broadly the New York Transparency in Supply Chains Act looks to prevent human trafficking and child labor in the supply chains of businesses with over $100 million in worldwide gross receipts.

Given the known environmental harms and human rights abuses of the industries providing minerals for electric vehicle and energy storage batteries, why hasn’t anyone in Albany submitted a bill for ensuring environmentally sound and human-rights compliant supply chains for the energy transition? If the dangers of the fashion and wood industries to human health and the environment are worthy of action, why not those of the “clean” energy industries, which threaten the rights of Chinese Uyghurs, Congolese children, and villagers living near mines in developing countries?

An appropriate law could easily be drafted by combining elements of the bills mentioned above. Such a bill would at a minimum,

  1. require battery, solar panel, and wind turbine companies to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from their own production processes, and—as with the Fashion Sustainability Act—from those of their suppliers;
  2. require that mining be done in an environmentally and socially responsible manner, ensuring that mining companies are not destroying local communities’ agricultural lands, polluting their water supplies, nor—in keeping with the Deforestation-Free Procurement Act—taking indigenous people’s lands without their “free, prior, and informed consent”;
  3. and require—like the Transparency in Supply Chains Act—that companies ensure that none of the minerals used in their products be produced or processed by “forced labor or child labor in violation of international standards.”

All renewable energy companies planning to site solar or wind power in the state, or to develop energy storage projects, and all electric vehicle manufacturers intending to sell their vehicles in the state, would be subject to this act.

Of course, such a bill would substantially increase the cost of decarbonizing the economy, which could potentially spark a political backlash that threatens state climate policy. But since climate activists believe it’s unfair to make the disadvantaged populations of New York bear the cost of the state’s climate goals, they surely also know that it’s wrong to place the burden on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

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