2023 Topical Reporting: Climate Change finalist

The dirty road to clean energy: How China’s electric vehicle boom is ravaging the environment

About the Project

Indonesia’s islands are some of the most biodiverse areas of the world. They are filled with dense jungle and teeming with wildlife. They’re also home to the planet’s largest reserves of nickel — a key component in many electric vehicle batteries.

China has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060 and will need almost 90% of its vehicles to be fully electric by 2035 to meet its target. But the extraction of EV battery materials is leaving deep scars across the landscape in places like Indonesia, disrupting local environments and life for local communities.

Rest of World reporter Antonia Timmerman spent ten days on the islands of Maluku and Sulawesi for a firsthand look at the reality of the electric vehicle boom, and the resulting article is the first deep report on the mining operations in this region and their impact on the environment, local communities, and public health.

Accompanying Timmerman’s reporting are immersive photographs taken by Muhammad Fadli, a documentary and portrait photographer based, like Timmerman, in Jakarta, Indonesia.

While massive industrial plants owned by Chinese companies work to extract and process the metal, surrounding villagers complain of health issues, pollution, and destroyed land. IMIP, a massive industrial complex, is only a few hundred meters from the fishing village of Kurisa, where many residents say their water has become polluted. “Before, we could see a needle at the bottom. Now, it’s all mud.”

One school teacher said, “The biggest impact that I see for myself and [for the children] around here is respiratory disease… At night, if we open the door, we can smell the smoke.” The pollution is so bad that, after reporting the story, Timmerman developed a severe eye infection likely caused by the dust and other air pollutants in the industrial areas she had visited. She’s still waiting to fully regain function of her left eye.

The title of this article, “The dirty road to clean energy,” reflects the human side of technology that all of our reporting focuses on. Electric vehicles are a resounding net positive for the planet, but behind the swift move to embrace them, people and the planet are suffering.