Green technology may not be green enough.
York University Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies researchers Caleb Goods and social science Professor Carla Lipsig-Mummé argue that new green technologies need to be looked at in a broader context in “The battery revolution is exciting, but they pollute too.” Published in The Conversation and reprinted in The World Economic Forum’s Agenda, this scholarly article makes the case that though cheaper greener technologies, such as storing energy in batteries, make “the transition to a greener economy easier and faster,” new technologies need to green their materials and work procedures as well.
Goods is a postdoctoral visitor with the Work in a Warming World research programme and, is a co-investigator of the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change (ACW), a Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada Partnership Grants program. Lipsig-Mummé, professor of work and labour studies, is ACW’s principal investigator.
The research looked “at some of the environmental impacts associated with the rise and use of battery technologies across a range of industries, but primarily electric cars. There is a lot of research looking at the mine impacts, the impacts to the local communities further upstream,” says Goods. “We need to think about greening all the way through.”
The article draws upon a few examples: the recently unveiled Powerall storage battery used in Tesla electric cars and used for generating domestic electricity, as well as the aluminum-ion and lithium-ion batteries also used in e-cars. The production of lithium-ion batteries, for example, needs graphite.
“Graphite in itself doesn’t kill people, but the fragments from the mining of it get into the air and pollute the landscape and the air. There are a lot of agricultural areas where they mine it,” says Goods. “You want new greener technologies because we need to advance and shift the economy in a greener direction, but you don’t want to do it at any cost. What are the social costs and what are the actual environmental costs—not just at the climate change level?”
Often new technologies in electric cars or rooftop solar panels are made in places like China where occupational health and safety standards fall short compared to countries like Canada and Australia, adds Goods. “Batteries are better than burning coal, he says, but “technology cannot solve all our environmental problems.”
Companies and labour unions should assess their entire global production network because “it’s not just about looking at the end product, but how we get to that end product,” says Goods. “The questions that are left are the common questions: how can these new technologies and the shift to a greener economy be done in the most socially, environmentally responsible way?”