Angeli Mehta reports on the global efforts, led by China, to improve sustainability of the raw material that underpins our clean energy future
Electric vehicles promise a greener, cleaner future but first their manufacturers have some investment to make in their sustainability. The lithium ion batteries in electric vehicles, smartphones and laptops require a critical raw material – cobalt.
The electric vehicle revolution alone is expected to see demand for cobalt soar threefold by 2030 compared to what was mined in 2016.
Cobalt rarely exists on its own in the earth’s crust but is combined with nickel or copper, which are smelted to produce the shiny silvery-grey cobalt.
What’s troubling is the number of years this was a black hole: companies were completely unaware of where cobalt was coming from
That cobalt has come under the spotlight in the past couple of years is thanks largely to efforts by Amnesty International. “What’s troubling is the number of years this was a black hole: companies were completely unaware of where cobalt was coming from,” says business and human rights adviser Joshua Rosenzweig.
Almost 60% of the world’s supply is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), one of the poorest countries on Earth, blighted by ethnic conflict and corruption.
The DRC’s people get little benefit from the country’s rich resource. An investigation by Global Witness revealed that more than $570m of revenues mining companies paid to the state disappeared between 2013 and 2015, thanks to corruption and mismanagement.
A new code that will increase taxes on mining companies was signed into law last month, although arguments persist over implementation, and there’s little optimism the situation will change.
To compound these unhappy circumstances, 20% of the DRC’s cobalt is mined by hand, so called artisanal mining, a word that belies the dangers of the effort and the child labour that helps support it.
In 2017 a team from the University of California, Berkeley, published a detailed study of over 2,500 households in the Congo’s copper belt. They found 90% of cobalt miners work in artisanal mining. Around 12% of under-18s worked in the mines, and many of them in the most dangerous of places – underground. What’s driving children to work is poverty.
Nor is industrial mining without blemish. Rosenzweig points to forced evictions, labour conditions, the use of security to keep artisanal miners away from the fringes of the mining perimeter, and environmental impacts. It’s also dangerous: seven workers were killed in 2016 at Glencore’s operations in the Katanga region after a mine wall collapsed.
Amnesty was highly critical of major car companies, which it said had taken 'minimal action'
Last year, Amnesty followed up with car and electronics companies on their efforts over nearly two years to identify their cobalt suppliers. It’s verdict? That only Apple and Samsung SDI had taken “adequate action” to identify their suppliers, although it criticized both for failing to make public their assessments of human rights risks associated with cobalt production.
Apple was the first company to map its cobalt supply chain to the mine level, and says it “goes beyond what’s required by law to help smelters report, assess, and mitigate risk in their business practices”. Its efforts are informed by the due diligence framework of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
This is not legally binding but sets out the common position of OECD members and others, including the DRC. Apple is also working with NGOs to eliminate child labour.
Amnesty was highly critical of car companies like VW, General Motors, Chrysler, Daimler, Renault, and BYD, which it says have taken “minimal action”.
Amongst those that have taken “moderate action” is Tesla, which disputes this rating, and insists the overwhelming majority of its cobalt comes from sources outside the DRC, through its battery supplier Panasonic.
A spokesperson told Ethical Corporation: “We spend a lot of time trying to make our supply chain as environmentally sound as possible, and ensuring that working conditions in our supply chain are safe and humane, and that workers are treated with respect and dignity.”
As long as there is a crack in the system someone will push cobalt through it
There’s an urgency to deal with challenges in the cobalt supply chain before demand is so high it’s impossible to police. China is the biggest importer and refiner of cobalt and the largest battery producer for electronic vehicles (EVs), so it’s no surprise that it’s identified cobalt as of strategic value as it transitions to green technologies. Observers worry that national interests could trump other concerns.
Refiners and smelters are crucial in supply chain tracking, as they’re the last point at which the origin of the cobalt can be identified, before industrial and artisanal-mined ore are blended together through the refining process.
“As long as there is a crack in the system someone will push cobalt through it,” asserts Rosenzweig.
Cobalt miners working underground in the DRC. (Credit: Amnesty International/Afrewatch)
The setting up last year of the Responsible Cobalt Initiative (RCI) is a hopeful sign. Chinese cobalt refiners Huayou, Jinchuan, and XTC New Energy Materials are joined on the downstream side by BMW, Dell, Jiana Energy, Apple, Volvo and Daimler.
So far, 26 companies and three Chinese industry associations are involved. Its newly appointed executive secretary Christina Feng, who until last year handled raw materials sourcing for Microsoft, says it’s crucial to join upstream and downstream efforts. RCI is yet to develop a workplan, but aims to deliver supply chain transparency with an internationally acceptable audit standard for refiners; to work on the ground with artisanal miners, and to provide a single voice to communicate with cobalt users.
“I believe in this work,” says Feng. “The companies who joined us agree they need to take the responsibility to tackle the challenges. They want to work on this.”
It would be great if we could give all those people safe and lucrative jobs
One of RCI’s founders, Huayou Cobalt, which mines and refines cobalt from the DRC, was heavily criticized by Amnesty. In a presentation in China last year, its director of sustainability, Bryce Lee, said many of its downstream customers had asked it to stop sourcing cobalt from artisanal mining. But he didn’t believe that was the right thing to do.
Lee suggested that a free market and a lack of capacity and will to implement due diligence on child labour makes it challenging to outlaw. Huayou, he said, had the most success at old industrial sites, where artisanal miners have permits to operate; it’s much harder to tackle issues of child labour where mining is done within the confines of villages.
Huayou has worked with NGO Pact to develop responsible sourcing, and these efforts have been independently audited. Its auditor’s report, however, called for Huayou to provide documentation and evidence of taking action when warnings were flagged up.
A bank of lithium ion batteries used in electric vehicles. (Credit: Fishman64/Shutterstock)
Like Huayou, NGOs don’t want the artisanal mining sector to go away, as livelihoods would be destroyed. But they want an end to bad practices. “It would be great if we could give all those people safe and lucrative jobs,” says Rosenzweig.
It’s often said that "the proof of the pudding is in the eating” and this is palpably true for the flurry of overlapping supply chain initiatives that have been launched by various industry groupings over the past year.
Apart from RCI, these include a risk assessment framework for large-scale producers, and the launch of an electronic tagging pilot by UK supply chain auditors RCS Global.
We have to go beyond due diligence. It’s not enough to have a checklist
Its aim is to establish precise provenance claims for cobalt from five artisanal and semi-mechanized mines in the DRC. Child labour, or incidents like a mine cave-in, would be recorded onto an online dashboard and instantly visible to anyone along the supply chain. RCS has yet to reveal the industrial participants (said to include two car companies), or exactly how such continuous monitoring will be achieved.
Leading automotive manufacturers have set up the Drive Sustainability Partnership, which aims to push for sustainability throughout their supply chains. They are developing a Raw Materials Observatory to identify and tackle ethical, environmental and human rights issues in raw materials sourcing. Fifty key raw materials common to the group have been assessed by sustainability analysts Dragonfly Initiative. The manufacturers’ group is finalising common actions for the top 17 materials, of which cobalt is one, and talking to potential partners.
Stefan Crets, executive director of CSR Europe, which is co-ordinating the partnership, says the goal is to work out what can be done together. “We have to go beyond due diligence. It’s not enough to have a checklist ... Who is going to improve the situation and take responsibility?”
What’s crucial now, he says, is to move from an “atomized approach to a cross sectoral approach”. Encouragingly others have already asked to be involved, including the electronics sector, through the Responsible Business Alliance. Crets also sits on the board of the Responsible Cobalt Initiative, so will have a broad overview of international efforts.
“We need to join the dots,” agrees Michèle Brülhart, director of innovations at the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA). She identifies refiners and smelters as the chokepoint. The RBA has published an initial list; and some of those refiners have completed risk-readiness self assessments. It also intends to co-ordinate auditing efforts with the RCI. But it’s going to take time, she cautions, to build capacity in the DRC. “We don't want to create disincentives for actors to be engaged by creating hard-to-meet expectations without providing a path for them to get there.”
While efforts directed at human rights and child labour risks in the supply chain are to be welcomed, discussion of environmental concerns are often quickly brushed over. Water extraction and pollution are real issues. People inhale both the dust that is constantly thrown up by heavy trucks traveling on unsurfaced roads, and radioactive materials, such as uranium, that naturally occur in the region’s soils and are exposed through mining.
Even before the sustainability of land mining is tackled, there is the prospect of exploitation of rich deposits of cobalt on the ocean floor
Various studies have found elevated concentrations of metals including cobalt, copper, and lead in the urine of adults and children living close to mines. Respiratory problems are common. CSR reports from mining companies like Glencore talk about environmental stewardship but provide little detail on impacts and actions. (See Mining companies ‘failing to address trust deficit’ with key stakeholders)
Even before the sustainability of land mining is tackled, there is the prospect of exploitation of rich deposits of cobalt formed over millions of years on the ocean floor. This resource is particularly abundant in the western Pacific, with deposits of some 50m tonnes: that’s around seven times the economically mineable deposits on land. According to the World Economic Forum, exploitation is expected by 2025.
The issues raised by cobalt mining suggest worldwide industry and governmental actions are required. It’s crucial that all the supply chain initiatives, as well as the newly formed Global Battery Alliance, which boasts members from the UN to industry, will implement a seamless approach to delivering sustainable batteries.
Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. @AngeliMehta
This article is part of the in-depth briefing Clean Energy's Human Rights Challenge: See also:
Towers of steel, feet of clay? Human rights concerns rise over wind industry
How Siemens is tackling human rights risks deep in its wind supply chain
Cobalt supply challenges fuel efforts to recycle EV and smartphone batteries
Mining companies ‘failing to address trust deficit’ with key stakeholders
How a little local knowledge can go a long way for mining companies
supply chains artisanal mining China Responsible Cobalt Initiative World Economic Forum Global Battery Alliance Apple Responsible Business Alliance Samsung electric vehicles CSR Europe RSC Global Global Witness clean energy lithium ion batteries Human rights