Cobalt winning undermines sustainable image of ‘green’ EV
Within five years, the production of electric vehicles (EV) will probably grow sixfold in Europe. But how the mining of cobalt is organized remains a disgrace, tarnishing the sustainable image of EVs.
Two-thirds of the world’s cobalt reserves are situated in the democratic republic of Congo. The mining of the material, still essential for battery manufacturing, is a big social problem. Mining is often done by children or women workers in deplorable conditions.
Is sustainable mining possible?
Toxicologist Benoit Nemery (Louvain University) has his doubts. “The question has been asked by a big player concerned about his image,” says Nemery. “I doubt it. Also, there are too many Chinese and other ‘pirate’ companies in this business, which are not concerned with these matters.”
There is also a serious problem with transparency. No authorities at the moment are worried about cobalt mining or creating regulations in this regard. “Where and how the mining is done stays a mystery,” Nemery continues. “Transparency about this should be the minimum requirement.”
The British audit company, RCS Global, is working on a technology to make this happen, via blockchain. It works together with Ford Motor Company, IBM and LG Chem on this.
Big players in the battery production, like Panasonic and Tesla, are trying to conceive batteries without cobalt, as are others searching into solid-state techniques. But estimations are that those will not be massively produced before 2025.
“Meanwhile we have to realize fair wages and far better working conditions for the miners in Congo,” concludes Nemery. “This mining activity will never be healthy, but we have to do something about the exploitation mechanisms. Until now, the big gains go to a small number of people, while the majority of the people do not see any economic improvement.
And Europe in this?
From all sides, there is pressure on European authorities to create a European battery industry as soon as possible. “If not, large parts of the European car industry will move to other regions,” says the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in a memo to the EU.
At the moment, Europe is only producing a meager 3% of all batteries in the world. Some 85% of the batteries we use come from Asia, the rest from the USA. That’s why the European Commission has insisted on creating a new ‘Airbus for batteries’ as soon as possible.
“More investments are necessary, and it has to go much faster,” says Colin Lustenhower from the EESC. “Companies, authorities, and scientists have to join forces.” Perhaps the still to be created European battery industry can work on the cobalt-free battery. It would make the ‘green’ EV also much more socially sustainable.