The LSE Phelan US Centre’s Climate Change Essay Competition asked LSE Master’s students to address the question, “What responsibility does the US have to the rest of the world on climate change?” In this runner-up essay, Alia Yusuf writes that while the US has a responsibility to the rest of the world to help accelerate the transition to net zero, it must ensure it does so equitably and sustainably. Using the example of investment in electric vehicles, she argues that the US must be cautious of the spill-over effects that carbon reduction efforts may have and ensure that these are not achieved at the expense of the livelihoods of those in the Global South.
On November 15, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the US$1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law. Amongst the provisions is the investment in electric vehicles (EV) — “$7.5 billion in EV charging, $10 billion in clean transportation, and over $7 billion in EV battery components, critical minerals, and materials.” It was a hopeful sign that the US was getting serious about climate change. Just one year later, however, on the other side of the world, people were grieving the loss of their land. It happened because these communities in Sulawesi, Indonesia, were living on top of one of the world’s largest nickel reserves — a mineral that makes up 80 percent of the composition of EV batteries.
As the country responsible for emitting 20 percent of global historic carbon emissions, the US has a responsibility to the rest of the world to help accelerate the transition to net zero. As Figure 1 shows, according to the EPA, in 2020 27 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions came from the transportation sector, and 57 percent of those came from light-duty vehicles (cars, vans, SUVs, etc.). Yet, it is equally important that the US achieves this goal equitably and sustainably, keeping countries in the supply chain of its investments in mind in its policy decisions. EV is no exception. While Biden’s law is a great start in addressing decarbonisation, more still needs to be done.
Figure 1 – Green House Gas Emissions (GHG) by US Sector and Source
With every passing international climate summit, much attention is rightfully placed on climate finance, yet it seems that the glaring issue with EV itself is often overlooked. It should be noted that while climate finance is crucial in providing countries with the resources to reduce carbon emissions, we should place equal scrutiny on how the policies themselves will be implemented.
COP27’s Accelerating to Zero Coalition (of which California is a signatory) led to 214 members pledging to mobilise EV adoption to reach the zero carbon emission targets. In the US; EV is a major components of US decarbonisation strategy, with the government aiming to build “a national network of 500,000 EV chargers along America’s highways and in our communities and have EVs make up at least 50 percent of new car sales by 2030, all while [building up] the domestic EV and EV charging industry.” Currently missing from both these initiatives is the commitment to sourcing the required minerals responsibly. That is not to say that we should avoid using EV at all, rather that its adoption needs to act as a complement to a more fundamental, systemic change.
Popularising the use of public transport
As a global economic and political leader, the US can leverage its cultural influence and demonstrate to the world that providing city-level public transport could be a viable answer to climate change mitigation. After all, various countries have taken inspiration from US widespread car adoption and associate its usage with class and higher social status. What this means is that in some countries, even with public transport infrastructure available, they would still be reluctant to use them due to the overwhelming preference for personal vehicles. The same idea applies to its suburban city designs, with urban planning in China and the UAE being just one of many examples of countries seeking to emulate the American Dream in their landscape.
Understandably, this would require a complete overhaul from the current car-dependent way of life. For example, the US could mobilise the political will to finish the long awaited California High-Speed Rail project, which has been overrun with costs and delays. Alongside installing bike lanes and opting for mixed-use developments, these could be ways to showcase the positive impact of diversifying decarbonisation beyond EVs. In addition, the US can also reduce dependence on EV. With developing countries today emitting 60 percent of all GHG emissions, this makes it an important avenue for the US to engage with.
Implementation of a stringent mineral certification for EV vehicles
In the end, the existing US strategy for EV is not yet an inclusive solution, because it will achieve the American net zero metrics at the expense of the livelihoods of those in the Global South. EV battery production wreaks environmental havoc during the extraction and refinery process, devastating people’s livelihoods by poisoning rivers and contaminating their food sources, which had been the way of sustaining themselves. It would be unfair to blame just EV for environmental degradation in mineral extraction sites since the minerals are also used in other types of electronics. However, integrating the responsible sourcing of EV batteries in the US strategy could still be used as the engine to spur accountability in mineral extraction and refining.
With the US ramping up production of EVs and their charging stations, it makes the country one of nickel’s largest potential markets. Therefore, the US would have the market influence to ensure that mining companies uphold better environmental standards of mineral extraction in the coming years. The US can raise the same level of scrutiny as was done to encourage sustainable palm oil, making sure mechanisms are in place to audit and monitor the production process. This could involve setting up a standardised international responsible sourcing framework for nickel akin to OECD’s Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High Risk Areas (OECD DDG). Including China and India, the IEA projected that developing countries may take up a ±22 percent of EV sales by 2030, meaning that the US has the scope to lead sustainability in this space.
Thus, the US responsibility today involves treading the fine line between domestic decarbonisation and international development. Without being cautious of the spill-over effects that American carbon reduction efforts may have, it can potentially jeopardise wider environmental causes. With developing countries also contributing to carbon emissions, the US has a role in paving the way and facilitating mutual accountability as the global economic and political leader. By thoroughly re-examining the supply chains of its investments, the US can help bring about a more equitable way of reducing carbon emissions.