EV boom highlights unethical cobalt production


Cobalt, an essential ingredient in lithium-ion batteries that power plug-in electric cars, has become a source of serious ethical and economic concerns.

Most of the world’s cobalt production is concentrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where in many cases children work in hazardous conditions mining the metal.

DRC has experienced two violent civil wars in its relatively short history. The rule of law is haphazard, and institutions are rife with corruption.

Mining is a cornerstone of the economy, however the work is often dangerous. Freelancers, known by the French word creuseurs, use picks and shovels to dig up cobalt; child labor is common.

The 2016 report from Amnesty International cited estimates from UNICEF that about 40,000 boys and girls work in mines across Congo, many of them at cobalt sites.

Human rights activists are demanding imediate review of human rights abuses throughout the supply chain, especially in light of the EV market growth and increased demand for the mineral.

Earlier this month, the chief executive at a Belgium-based multinational that produces cathodes for EV batteries said cobalt will still be needed for the foreseeable future.

“There isn’t a better element than nickel to increase energy density, and there isn’t a better element than cobalt to make the stuff stable,” Marc Grynberg, the chief executive at Umicore,. “So [while] you hear about designing out cobalt, this is not going to happen in the next three decades.”

The cathodes in lithium-ion batteries typically used in EVs are made of metal oxides that contain a combination of cobalt and other elements. Cobalt helps the cathodes concentrate a lot of power in a confined space. Without the element’s energy density, batteries without cobalt tend to perform worse.

EV market & the growing need for cobalt

A 2017 report from the financial giant Morgan Stanley projected as many as 1 billion electric vehicles could be on the road worldwide by 2050.

Anticipating a flood in global sales of EVs, the demand for cobalt used in electric car batteries is expected to increase nearly eight-fold by 2026.

Examples of market expansion:

  • Tesla has begun rolling out its Model 3, an EV for the masses.
  • Ford announced plans to spend $11 billion on EVs by 2022.
  • Volvo executives have vowed that by 2019 all its models will be either hybrids or powered solely by batteries.
  • GM said it will add two more all-electric cars to its fleet later this year and at least 18 more by 2023.

China, the auto industry’s largest market in the world, announced last year its intention to ban the sale of cars using fossil fuels in the future.

The United Kingdom and France have announced plans to phase out gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040.

All 16 states in Germany — home of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi — passed a nonbinding resolution to ban the sale of new gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2030.

California policymakers have pushed zero-emissions vehicles as essential to meet the state’s mandates to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Gov. Jerry Brown has set a target of 1.5 million clean-energy vehicles on California’s roads by 2025.

Tesla has pledged to not take cobalt from child labor or creuseurs. But it’s hard to track the metal’s origination once it has reached the end of the supply chain.


Image credit: Foreign Brief