To combat climate change, we’re going to need batteries—a lot of batteries—to power the way. It’s batteries that rev up electric engines, put electric vehicles on the road, and store the green energy produced by solar panels and wind turbines.
But manufacturing all of those batteries will come with a whole new set of environmental risks, including greenhouse gas pollution from the energy it takes to make and distribute them. Meanwhile, regulation of the battery supply chain is fraught: some of the mining operations for raw materials like cobalt are notorious for human rights violations, including child labor.
Inga Petersen frames the problem bluntly. “How can we scale this industry in a way that it meets the targets of the green transition, but at the same time doesn’t cause collateral damage that would ultimately offset what we’re trying to achieve?” she tells Quartz.
Petersen is the executive director of the Global Battery Alliance (GBA), a collaborative effort of NGOs, businesses, government agencies, and others focused on ensuring that the growing battery industry is both environmentally sustainable and socially responsible. To do this, they’re pioneering the battery passport—a digital record that documents where each part of a battery came from and evaluates its environmental and social impact.
This isn’t as easy as it might sound. Individual battery components can be produced in an array of different countries, with raw materials from an array of other countries, and detailed records of each part’s origin are often hard to come by. What’s more, evaluating the environmental and social costs of this supply chain requires extensive information about every step in its production—say, if any of the mines exploited child labor, or how much fossil fuel was used to ship each part around the world.
In January, the GBA released the battery passport’s first proof of concept to demonstrate how to start filling in these knowledge gaps. For now, they focused on evaluating greenhouse gas emissions, human rights, and child labor. Under Petersen, they’re quickly working to incorporate other issues too, like biodiversity and indigenous peoples’ rights.
The idea of a battery passport is gaining momentum. By 2027, every EV battery and many industrial batteries sold in the European Union will need a QR code linking to details on its makeup, origin, and carbon footprint. By showing it can be done with batteries, Petersen says, this kind of supply chain transparency and accountability could catch on elsewhere, too. The US Department of Labor, for example, has identified a variety of products from around the world—including clothing, electronics, and food—suspected of being produced with child or forced labor.
“What’s interesting around the battery passport,” Petersen says, “is that it’s creating a case study that other industries and other products might want to follow.”
This story is part of Quartz’s Innovators List 2023, a series that spotlights the people deploying bold technologies and reimagining the way we do business for good across the globe. Find the full list here.