Commentary: How can we minimize the social and environmental cost of cobalt mining?

Author: Bianca Nogrady, Ensia, Published on: 20 May 2020

"Cobalt is critical to the renewable energy transition. How can we minimize its social and environmental cost?", 14 May 2020.

...cobalt is hot property...It’s in the rechargeable batteries in smartphones and laptops. And it’s a component of the lithium ion batteries that power electric vehicles and store energy from solar, wind and other renewable sources...As interest in cobalt has grown, so has interest in ensuring that it’s ethically produced...Around one-fifth of cobalt mined in the DRC comes from small-scale artisanal mines. People, including children as young as 7 years old, work in hazardous conditions without gloves to protect them from contact dermatitis, breathing cobalt-laden dust that is associated with a potentially fatal lung disease...“There’s a whole range of human rights violations connected to cobalt mining in the DRC, generally stemming from the fact that it’s just a very poorly regulated activity by the Congolese government,” says Mark Dummett, head of business, security and human rights at Amnesty International...

...the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre...has developed an online tool called the Transition Minerals Tracker to keep close tabs on human rights allegations associated with minerals...key in the transition to renewable energy and a low carbon economy. “We launched this tool so it can be used by investors but also companies at the end of the supply chain to just understand who are the actors at the top, what are their policies and, hopefully, could they engage with them to change some of these things,” says Stephanie Regalia, natural resources research assistant at the center...

What about doing away with cobalt altogether, as Tesla recently announced it was planning to do? Regalia says that when a mineral becomes ethically tarnished, there’s the temptation to exclude it from the supply chain and look for an alternative. But their research has found that no transition mineral is perfect; lithium, manganese, nickel and zinc are all associated with human rights violations. And to shun cobalt altogether would also mean denying a valuable source of income to people who need it more than many, Dummett argues...

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Related companies: Sumitomo Metal Mining (part of Sumitomo Group) Tesla Motors