The electric-vehicle (EV) revolution is ushering in a golden age for battery raw materials, emphasized by a dramatic increase in demand for two key battery commodities: lithium and cobalt.
In addition, the growing need for energy storage, e-bikes, electrification of tools, and other battery-intense applications is increasing the interest in these commodities.
Countries are also announcing plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero in the near future with UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson declaring that new cars and vans powered wholly by petrol and diesel will be completely banned in the UK from 2030 with some hybrids still allowed.
Cobalt is essential to power the rechargeable lithium batteries used in millions of products sold by Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla every year. It is an essential mineral for the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles, laptops and smart phones. It offers the highest energy density and is key for boosting battery life.
The insatiable demand for cobalt, driven by desire for cheap handheld technology, has tripled in the past six years.
The Katanga region in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is home to more than half of the world’s cobalt resources, and over 70% of the current cobalt production worldwide takes place in the country. Demand for cobalt is projected to surge fourfold by 2030 in pace with the electric vehicle boom. Because of the huge mineral deposits available in the country, it is often the only sourcing option for companies.
However, mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo is risky because of the prevalence of artisanal small-scale mining. Artisanal mining is often carried out by hand, using basic equipment. It’s a largely informal and labour-intensive activity on which more than two million Congolese miners depend for income and this mining method comes with major human rights risks such as child labour and dangerous working conditions. Fatal accidents in unsafe tunnels occur frequently and there are detailed reports such as the one by Amnesty International on the prevalence of child labour in these operations.
Because artisanal miners frequently extract cobalt illegally on industrial mining sites, human rights issues cannot be excluded from industrial production. Artisanal-mined cobalt also often gets mixed with the industrial production when it is sold to middlemen in the open market.
Typically, it is then shipped to refineries in China for further processing and then sold to battery manufacturers around the world. In this complex supply chain, separating, tracking and tracing artisanal mined cobalt is almost impossible.
International human rights organisations have identified human rights abuses, putting pressure on multinational corporations that buy Congolese cobalt.
Recently, Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla have been named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in Washington DC by human rights firm International Rights Advocates on behalf of 14 parents and children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The lawsuit, which is the result of field research conducted by anti-slavery economist Siddharth Kara, accuses the companies of aiding and abetting in the death and serious injury of children who they claim were working in cobalt mines in their supply chain.
In response to these pressures, some automotive and electronics companies are currently not sourcing cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo because they want to avoid tainting their brand image.
But that strategy doesn’t look sustainable as no other country will be able to satisfy the rising demand for cobalt. The production of other cobalt-exporting countries such as Russia, Canada, Australia and the Philippines accounts for less than 5% of the global production.
How companies in the cobalt supply chain can source responsible cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo amid these human rights risks therefore needs to be addressed.
The study by Amnesty International has already determined that "major electronics and electric vehicle companies are still not doing enough to stop human rights abuses entering their cobalt supply chains."
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "chronic exposure to cobalt-containing hard metal (dust or fume) can result in a serious lung disease called 'hard metal lung disease'" – a kind of pneumoconiosis, meaning a lung disease caused by inhaling dust particles. Inhalation of cobalt particles can cause respiratory sensitization, asthma, decreased pulmonary function and shortness of breath
The health agency says skin contact is also a significant health concern "because dermal exposures to hard metal and cobalt salts can result in significant systemic uptake."
Sustained exposures can cause skin sensitization, which may result in eruptions of contact dermatitis, a red, itchy skin rash.
Despite the health risks, researchers with Amnesty found that most cobalt miners in Congo lack basic protective equipment like face masks, work clothing and gloves.
Artisanal mining is a difficult, dangerous and under-regulated business and there is currently no common understanding of what “responsible” artisanal cobalt should entail. The quest for responsible mineral sourcing is not a cobalt-specific challenge and cuts across various mining sectors especially on the African continent.
Looking to realize common standards, the Congolese mining code has been reformed to include certain basic standards such as the prohibition of miners under the age of 18. There are also requirements to register as an artisanal miner and become a member of a mining cooperative.
This initiative means the creation of official areas where artisanal mining can take place, which lends the mines a legitimacy that makes it easier for miners to form cooperatives, borrow money and bring in bigger equipment to make mining safer.
The reform, however, hasn’t yielded full results. To begin with, not all DRC artisanal mining cooperatives represent their members’ interests. Some are owned by representatives of the political elite and demand unofficial payments from their members that can amount to 20 per cent of their production.
One approach towards common standards will be to mount “artisanal and small-scale mining formalisation projects”. The few existing projects establish rules for the mining site that are defined and enforced by the project partners. These usually consist of cooperatives, mine operators and buyers.
It is widely expected that formalisation will be a viable path to making artisanal mining safe and fair. Formalisation works because operational measures are put in place to mitigate safety risks. For example, the extraction is supervised by mining engineers. Also, the project site is fenced off and has exit and entry controls. This ensures that no underage, pregnant or drunk miners work on site.
But for formalisation projects to yield “responsible” artisanal cobalt, common standards and consistent enforcement are necessary. Currently, formalisation means different things in different sites.
National standards for mine safety exist, but they need to be enforced uniformly. Where current standards fall short of reassuring buyers, further measures need to be developed by a consortium of the key players. This should involve mining cooperatives, concession holders, the government, civil society organisations, and other companies along the battery supply chain. The amendments to the mining code has introduced a legal basis for the subcontracting of artisanal miners by industrial mining companies.
In January 2020, the Congolese government created an entity that will oversee artisanal and small-scale mining activities. The development of artisanal mining standards through a process involving key players needs to build on and strengthen these existing national laws and strategies.
Furthermore, private actors should support government efforts by identifying parameters and means of evaluation to ensure the consistent enforcement of these standards. A discussion about responsible sourcing strategies and practices is indispensable for all brands that care about the human rights implications of their operations.
Companies behind the technologies of the “clean energy revolution” clearly want to be associated with sustainability, not human rights abuses. More are now willing to admit there are serious problems that can no longer be ignored. However, awareness and commitments have not translated into action across the global supply chain.
These companies need to carry out due diligence in line with international standards to avoid making it difficult to establish a viable market for more responsible sources of cobalt. This is especially true given that Chinese battery producers are gearing up to meet expected demand for Chinese-manufactured electric vehicles.
Given the scale of the problem and exponentially growing demand for cobalt, more must be done to protect the well-being of Congolese miners. The human cost of cobalt mining, once a problem largely hidden from end-users of the mineral has now been highlighted more broadly, and the eyes of the world, especially consumers, are open.