There Are No Ethical Lithium Ion Batteries: The Decarbonization Divide & Ethical Practices of the Lithium Ion Battery Supply Chain Analyzed Through a Deontological Framework

Webbert, Grey, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Davis, William, Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

The technical capstone is quite different from the STS thesis in both topic and scope. The technical portion of my thesis produced a fully designed site plan (including stormwater, traffic, construction, and grading plans) for a future mixed-use residential and commercial development on a 35.7 acre parcel off of Old Ivy Road in Albemarle County. We were able to design the site to accommodate 300 housing units (the maximum) with ample recreational amenities as we prioritized community centered design.

In my STS research, I explored why the idea of ethical lithium ion batteries through a deontological framework is not possible. I specifically looked at the exploitation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for its ample cobalt resources and its subsequent labor issues and human rights violations that plague the industry. The 2 most relevant frameworks used to analyze the issue were the United Nations' Guiding Principles on Business and Human Ethics as well as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict Affected and High-Risk Areas. These 2 frameworks were used to prove that current practices being utilized by businesses violate these widely accepted moral norms, thus making the cobalt supply chain in itself unethical. I also touch on some of the historical contexts of the DRC which informs what its people are owed under a deontological framework by explaining that the people of the DRC, as one of the richest places in the world in terms of resources, has been exploited for those resources since its previous brutal reality under Belgian colonial rule before its legal independence in 1960. By explaining both the previous and current exploitative practices and power structures that have affected and shaped an entire group of people, I found that it is not right to say there is such a thing or ever will be such a thing as an ethical lithium ion battery. Our collective future dependence on the DRC’s resources as the globe continues to decarbonize is significant. We will only continue to ramp up cobalt mining in the country to meet global demands for batteries. I have found that without deep interventions that come from within the country itself there will never be any robust supply chain that produces ethical lithium ion batteries due to the previous and current amounts of human suffering that go into its production and infrastructure.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Decarbonization Divide, Lithium-ion batteries, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethical Mining, Ethical Batteries
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