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  • Writer's pictureDoug Hull

The cobalt conundrum

It seems to be more and more common these days for attention-hungry media sites to use sensational headlines to gain more clicks. This is especially prevalent in the sphere of climate change where renewable energy technologies could either be the planet's saviour, or its downfall. Case in point - the shocking human rights abuses and use of child labour in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and its link to the electric vehicle (EV) boom in the West. There have been some very emotive stories circulating in the recent past about the impact of the clean energy push. You would be forgiven for feeling outrage, and rightly so, but is the EV industry really to blame and should it be demonised for its role in these injustices?

The DRC is one of the largest producers of cobalt providing about 70% of the world's supply in 2022. Cobalt is a key component of batteries which are used in EVs, and also in devices such as laptops, cell phones and anything with a rechargeable battery. It is also heavily used for industrial, military and aviation purposes - in 2017 it was estimated that 58% of all globally produced cobalt was used for things like magnets, catalysts and super-alloys in jet engines. This left 42% for the battery industries, of which EV's used about a quarter. By 2020 however the share of cobalt used for batteries surged to 56% due to increased EV demand, and this growth has continued on into 2023. Recently, however, the price seems to have hit a brick wall and dropped due to a reduction in demand and the cobalt price is now close to historic lows. This is at least partly due to a shift away from using cobalt in EV batteries. In fact Tesla now uses cobalt-free LFP (Lithium Iron Phosphate) batteries in more than half of their vehicles, and other manufacturers (like BYD in China) are following suit. Even those still using cobalt now use significantly less of the product in their batteries. Others, like BMW, are insisting on using only ethical sources of cobalt, (i.e.nothing from the DRC).

Then there is the recycling angle to consider. Cobalt (along with lithium, nickel and manganese) are recyclable materials (unlike oil for example) and a number of companies are working to lower the costs associated with this. When the recycling costs drop below those of the original mining costs then the demand for (and the cost of) the raw product will drop even further. A major factor in the economics of recycling is the availability of the source material i.e. used batteries. This will increase rapidly in the next 5-10 years as first generation EVs reach end of life and their batteries become available for recycling. Add to that the increased pressure from consumers with a social conscience around sustainability and it seems inevitable that recycling rates will only grow in the future.

It's a shame that countries like the DRC are not able to realise the social upliftment potential of their mineral wealth, and there are countless other tragedies like this in the 3rd world. Ethical mining is possible of course, and the wealth could have life-changing consequences for some of the poorest people on the planet, yet history shows this is not readily achievable in places like central Africa. While the awful child labour and human rights abuses are unacceptable, the EV industry should, in my opinion, not be vilified. We should, instead encourage all battery manufacturers to seek ways to ethically source their materials, and we, as consumers, should do our homework and make good choices when purchasing EVs or anything with a battery. Let's not forget the benefits of EVs, as well as the dire global consequences of not taking urgent climate action in the next few years.

Until next time!


The Regeneralist

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