In December 2022, Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault gave the go-ahead for a new lithium mine in northern Quebec. The James Bay project represents the only lithium mine in North America, and the materials are slated to help meet the surging demand for electric vehicles. Although the shift away from fossil fuels is an important step in fighting climate change, the Cree community of Eeyou Istchee has led the charge to oppose the project. Various other Indigenous communities have similarly raised concerns about the environmental effects of mines and the fact that lithium-powered machinery is not as sustainable as advertised.
When looking to purchase new vehicles, consumers should question the narrative surrounding the sustainability of said products before deciding to pump money into the industry. To truly engage in the fight against the climate crisis, consumers must commit to curtailing patterns of overconsumption, which will decrease demand for materials such as lithium. Beyond consumption patterns, consumers must pressure their governments to not invest in industries that are complicit in environmental destruction and human rights abuses under the guise of sustainable development.
While Guilbeault stated that the project is not expected to have serious environmental effects and will be built in partnership with local Cree communities, we must consider the Canadian government’s history of broken promises. Despite commitments to allegedly defend Indigenous sovereignty and land, communities such as the Wet’suwet’en continue to protest the construction of pipelines such as Coastal GasLink, whose non-consensual construction ensues despite violent police repression.
Lithium mining itself in Quebec has already faced staunch resistance from Indigenous communities. When another Quebec lithium mine was proposed in November 2022, members of the Long Point First Nation opposed it and the exploitation of their land, but the project is set to go ahead.
Beyond its immediate overstepping of Indigenous sovereignty, lithium mining is linked to grave human rights concerns due to its reliance on cobalt production—a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries. Seventy per cent of the world’s cobalt is produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo under inhumane working conditions and using child labour. This type of exploitation is the lived reality of millions of people in the supply chain that the Quebec government is choosing to take part in.
While electric vehicles, whose production requires lithium, are generally the more environmentally-friendly option, consumers must consider the effects of the emissions linked to lithium production and automobile manufacturing. China’s production of lithium batteries—which constitutes the majority of global production—is fuelled by coal. The production of an electric vehicle’s battery and fuel both produce more emissions and are more resource-intensive than the manufacturing of a standard automobile engine. The improved energy efficiency of electric vehicles, however, makes up for these higher environmental costs. Nonetheless, the demand for lithium-ion battery materials is growing, which will undoubtedly lead to increased global emissions that cancel out the effects of electric cars.
When consumers overlook the big picture of vehicle production, they only further contribute to overconsumption. If the exorbitant demand for private vehicles continues—even if they are electric—the environment will continue to severely degrade. Although electric vehicles and the shift away from fossil fuels are positive steps forward, we must still acknowledge that our unquenchable thirst for the latest and most advanced technology continues to perpetuate the destruction of our environment.
McGill students have embarked on noteworthy initiatives to help build new patterns of sustainability, such as the Sustainability Projects Fund. While initiatives like these are great for students to create more sustainable living and consumption patterns, those residing in Quebec must also fight against government projects that make them complicit in environmental devastation. On the journey to climate justice, one of the first steps must be active lobbying against destructive mining funded by the government.