As gearheads and auto industry suits streamed into the Los Angeles Convention Center Saturday for the LA Auto Show, they found themselves in the middle of a scene out of Squid Games. Demonstrators clad in the Netflix show’s red jumpsuits and black guard masks splayed across the showroom floor like victims in a deadly game of red light, green light.
The die-in, staged by activists from the climate advocacy groups Mighty Earth and Youth Climate Strike LA, was meant to call out the oft-overlooked dirty underbelly of clean transportation—the electric vehicle supply chain.
The EV supply chain, which includes everything from mineral mining to metal smelting and battery manufacturing, generates 35 to 50 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than that of gas-powered vehicles, according to a February report from EV makers Rivian and Polestar.
While the lifetime emissions of EVs are much lower, the report argues they’re still deficient. It estimates that EV producers need to reduce their supply chain emissions 81 percent by 2032 to help achieve the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. “Everyone just thinks, well, they’re not using gasoline anymore. Problem solved,” says Matthew Groch, a senior director at Mighty Earth. “Going electric is really just the start.”
Saturday’s demonstrators targeted South Korean auto giant Hyundai. In addition to criticizing the company’s reliance on coal-powered steel plants, which a report from climate groups linked to 506 pollution-related premature deaths in 2021, they also denounced the company’s reported labor practices. Last December, a Reuters investigation found undocumented children working in the automaker’s supply chain in Alabama.
“Hyundai does not condone or tolerate violations of labor law,” says Hyundai spokesperson Michael Stewart. “We took swift action in response to reported incidents, including launching a broader review of our US supplier network and collaborating with the US Department of Labor.”
Regarding the company’s climate commitments, Stewart says that Hyundai has set a goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2025 and is mobilizing significant resources to make sure its supply chain meets or exceeds safety, quality, sustainability, and human rights standards. “We, as an automaker, have to be more active when responding to climate change than companies in other industries,” he adds.
As the third-largest global automaker, Hyundai exerts considerable influence over auto suppliers generally, but it is not alone in facing criticism from activists. Saturday’s demonstrators are part of a coalition of climate and labor groups called Lead the Charge, which aims to hold automakers accountable for the impacts of their supply chains on climate, labor, the environment, and Indigenous people’s rights. The organization publishes a leaderboard which ranks 18 major EV makers based on their climate, environmental, and human rights impacts. Hyundai ranked 10th. Mercedes, Ford, and Volvo ranked in the top three.
Lead the Charge focuses its climate assessments on three automobile components: steel, aluminum, and batteries. Collectively, they make up around 70 percent of the lifetime emissions of an EV, according to Polestar and Rivian’s report.
As the top consumer of aluminum and batteries, and the third-largest consumer of steel, automakers wield significant power to push these industries toward more sustainable production, activists argue. “What we’re trying to get the industry to do is to flex their muscles so that some of the steel and aluminum companies will get off their asses and actually do something,” says Groch.
On Friday, demonstrators from the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen unfurled two banners outside the entrance to the auto show, calling out Toyota for its own supply chain practices. They read, “Stop stalling. EVs are the future” and “Drop coal and cut ties to forced labor.”
Once a “green darling” for its popularization of the Prius hybrid, Toyota is now the “biggest EV laggard,” claims Lead the Charge. EVs comprised just 1 percent of the company’s overall sales last year, according to the report, which claims the company set no sustainability targets for aluminum, steel, or batteries. It also earned the worst rating of all 18 automakers on climate lobbying, after reportedly fighting against fuel-efficiency standards and tax incentives for union automakers.
The protesters were also calling out Toyota’s alleged ties to forced Uyghur labor in the Xinjiang region of China. A report published last year by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University found that forced Uyghur labor was used by suppliers throughout the auto industry, prompting a probe by the US Senate. “The Chinese government has deliberately shifted raw materials mining and processing and auto parts manufacturing into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, essentially making international supply chains captive to repressive programs and systematic forced labor,” the report alleges.
“We’re singling out Toyota to push them to use their purchasing power as a force for good,” says Erika Thi Patterson, Public Citizen’s auto supply chain campaign director. “They’re the largest automaker, and they’ve long tried to craft this false image of being an industry leader on sustainability.” Toyota did not respond to requests for comment.
Lead the Charge’s broad coalition represents a growing alliance between climate advocates and labor groups, who see one another as necessary allies in the fight for a “just transition” to clean energy that doesn’t leave workers behind. Mighty Earth and Public Citizen both demonstrated at September’s Detroit Auto Show in support of members of the United Auto Workers, who are fighting for a contract, and two UAW organizers sat on Wednesday’s panel to highlight their recent contract wins.
California congressman Ro Khanna appeared over Zoom at the panel to promote a bipartisan bill he is sponsoring that would bring steel manufacturing back to the US and incentivize climate-friendly production. Nine out of the top 15 steel companies are located in China, he told the audience, and the vast majority of Chinese steel makers rely on coal-powered furnaces.
Steel and other forms of iron comprise roughly 65 percent of an automobile’s weight, according to the World Steel Association. Steel also accounts for around 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, a number that could grow with the demand for EVs. Most steel producers rely on blast furnaces powered by coal and petroleum coke, despite the availability of more sustainable methods. A nonprofit named ResponsibleSteel certifies producers that use alternative fuel sources such as hydrogen or direct reduced iron.
Unless major steel customers—like automakers—demand sustainable materials, however, the transition to sustainable production risks proceeding too slowly. More than 70 percent of coal-powered steel blast furnaces are up for reinvestment by 2030, according to the climate-focused think tank Agora Industry.
Activists are also pressuring automakers to transition to sustainable forms of aluminum, a major automobile component that accounts for 2 percent of global emissions. Reports from Human Rights Watch and Bloomberg have linked bauxite mining used for aluminum to human rights abuses in Guinea and deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Although Hyundai touted its “green aluminum” deal with the Indonesian mining company Adaro last year, the deal requires the construction of new coal-fired power plants. “So it’s not green,” argues Groch.
Mining the minerals used in EV batteries can be another major source of environmental destruction, carbon emissions, and encroachment on Indigenous lands. Fifty-four percent of the 30 metals and minerals necessary for renewable energy technologies such as EV batteries live on or near Indigenous peoples’ lands.
Despite this fact, Lead the Charge found that two-thirds of the companies on its scorecard had no policy related to Indigenous people’s rights and income. The organization calls on mining companies to obtain their free, prior, and informed consent in keeping with a declaration signed by Indigenous organizations at last year’s United Nations climate conference.
While EVs still represent a small but growing share of new vehicle purchases, decisions being made today about how they’re made will reverberate for decades, activists argue. “If we don’t address this now, in 10 or 15 years, as there’s more and more electric vehicles, it’s going to be hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” says Groch.