An introduction to electric vehicles and cobalt

November 17, 2020

Exposing child labour through investigative journalism is important and we are right to be concerned. It’s essential that inhumane labour practices are reported and that safe standards are upheld. Criticism of the status quo is something we should all exercise, and is probably what sparked your interest in electric vehicles to begin with.

Electric vehicles are gaining rapid acceptance, and are driving up demand for the materials used to make batteries. Meanwhile, automakers have committed to ethical supply chains.

You’ve probably come across articles suggesting (or outright claiming) that electric vehicle batteries are made from cobalt mined through inhumane conditions, including child labour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which holds 60% of the world’s cobalt supply. In 2018, for example, CNN ran published stories like this, with the headline, “Carmakers and big tech struggle to keep batteries free from child labor,” even though the story proceeds to report on numerous measures that manufacturers are taking to eliminate child labour.

Stories like these tend to assert a direct link between electric vehicle batteries and poor mining conditions while doing little to recognize that a myriad of products beyond batteries have a long history of using cobalt, including the desulphurization process of refining oil. Such articles are easy to find, but if you want additional context this post provides some extra reading and relevant links.

Desmog noted in 2018 that sensational or vague news articles have exaggerated the amount of cobalt used in electric vehicle production. Roughly 7.5% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the disturbing manner seen in media investigations. About 10% of  total cobalt extraction at that time went towards electric vehicles:

“The bigger culprits are portable consumer electronics — like cell phones and laptop computers — which use around 72 percent of the cobalt that goes into lithium ion batteries, or roughly 30 percent of all cobalt mined. Another 16 percent of cobalt demand is for the production of superalloys, typically used for for casting airfoils and other structural parts of turbine engines for jets and natural gas power plants. The production of carbides and diamond drills for industrial operations currently uses the same amount of cobalt, 10 percent, as electric vehicles do. Other major uses are for manufacturing steel, magnets, and medical equipment.”

Updating those numbers with 2020 figures, electric vehicle end-use drives 1/5th of cobalt demand (20%); however, virtually all automakers have committed to ethical supply chains and improving working conditions in the DRC.

  • The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance defines good practices for what responsible mining should look like at the industrial-scale. It provides the list of expectations that independent auditors will use as the benchmark for responsible mines. BMW is one of the members.
  • The Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Network allows for better traceability of materials, including cobalt. Daimler, Volkswagen Group, Volvo / Polestar, Fiat Chrysler Automotive, Renault Nissan Mitsubishi and Ford are the automakers using this platform in addition to battery suppliers: LG Chem and CATL.
  • The Fair Cobalt Alliance drives the development of fair cobalt by supporting the professionalization of artisanal mining site (ASM) management, ensuring an uptake of responsible mining practices and channeling financial investment into mine improvements, with the goal of making mines safer, minimizing environmental impact and creating decent working conditions for men and women working at the mines. To prevent children from working inside any of the cobalt mines, the FCA supports ASM operators to establish credible control and monitoring mechanisms to keep children out of the mines. Tesla and mining company Glencore are members, while Volvo is listed as a supporter.
  • The Cobalt Institute (CI) is a non-profit trade association composed of producers, users, recyclers, and traders of cobalt. They promote the sustainable and responsible production and use of cobalt in all its forms. Formerly known as the Cobalt Development Institute (CDI), they act as a knowledge centre for governments, agencies, industry, the media and the public on all matters concerning cobalt and cobalt containing substances. They provide the Cobalt Industry Responsible Assessment Framework and ResponsibleCobalt.org site.

Tesla, specifically

Tesla, synonymous with EVs, is often called out in media articles about cobalt extraction. In 2018, Tesla released a Conflict Minerals Report that detailed their continued reduction of cobalt in batteries and detailed their process of ensuring an ethical supply chain. You can see highlights by Electrek.co and the full report here.

Tesla more recently published a 2019 Impacts Report, which addresses battery materials sourcing, especially cobalt:

“In order to further increase the transparency of our cobalt supply chain, we collect detailed data from relevant suppliers using the Responsible Minerals Initiative’s (“RMI”) Cobalt Reporting Template. Because Tesla recognizes the higher risks of human rights issues within cobalt supply chains, particularly for child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“DRC”), we have made a significant effort to establish processes to remove these risks from our supply chain. We also recognize that mining conducted in a responsible and ethical manner is an important part of the economic and social well-being of those communities. We review all information provided by our suppliers for red flags and risks associated with ethical sourcing. Where we can be assured that minerals, including cobalt, are coming from mines that meet our social and environmental standards, we will continue to support sourcing from the DRC and other regions.”

See more in the Impacts Report here (materials sourcing on page 33).

As of late 2020, Tesla batteries contain less than 3% cobalt and the automaker is implementing cobalt free battery technologies; Tesla received government approval to build Model 3 vehicles in China equipped with lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries at their Shanghai factory, and announced a new cobalt free battery design during the Tesla “Battery Day” event in September – but no timeline was established for that battery. In the meantime, Tesla made a supply deal with mining company Glencore to secure cobalt in June of 2020, noting that support sourcing of the metal from the DRC if it can be assured raw materials are coming from operations that meet social and environmental standards.

Cobalt in Canada

Tesla’s zero-cobalt ambitions aside, the rare metal is expected to have a continued use used in batteries, including EV batteries. Canada has a role to play and has been preparing its supply chain for the electric vehicle era.

“Industry players say Natural Resources Canada has been aggressively laying the groundwork for a comparable boom on Canadian soil. Last summer, the feds launched a $4.5 million Impact Canada challenge aimed at accelerating made-in-Canada battery innovation. The Canadian CEO of one leading cathode supplier to EV battery producers around the world, BASF Canada’s Marcelo Lu, says that Canada has all the right ingredients to become a major battery hub: “Canada is one of the few countries that has all the elements to produce a lithium-ion battery for electric vehicles.” For instance, he says, Canadian nickel, like that found in Sudbury, is naturally rich in cobalt (Canada has 3% of known cobalt reserves).” Corporate Knights

“First Cobalt is producing battery-grade cobalt sulphate at the company’s hydrometallurgical refinery in Ontario, 600 km from Canada’s border with the United States. It is the only fully permitted primary cobalt refinery in North America.” Northern Miner.

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