Power supply: mining for an ethical battery

A man digs through mine waste searching for leftover cobalt, one of 130,000 small-scale diggers trying to scratch a living from the DRC’s rich earth A man digs through mine waste searching for leftover cobalt, one of 130,000 small-scale diggers trying to scratch a living from the DRC’s rich earth
18 Nov
A global boom in battery usage over the coming century has raised concerns about the ethics and practices behind mining cobalt and other essential minerals

From current cutting-edge technology such as smartphones and electric cars, to the potential high-tech mainstays of the near-future such as home energy storage or electric airplanes, the unfolding electricity revolution means that battery usage is powering up in a big way. Analysts estimate the global market for batteries to be worth $100billion by 2025, with rechargeable batteries expecting to account for $77billion of that figure.

This rapid growth is resulting in a significant demand for metals such as cobalt, an essential component in the production process for lithium-ion batteries. Recent analysis from the CRU Group, consultants for the global mining, metals and fertiliser markets, forecasts a substantial market deficit in cobalt supply this year with overall demand expected to exceed 100,000 tonnes.

However, with the majority of cobalt being sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where governance is especially weak, major concerns are being raised regarding the human rights and environmental standards of the cobalt supply chain.

This is especially concerning given the significant role of small-scale, unregulated ‘artisanal’ mining. An Amnesty International report from January 2016 found as many as 110,000 to 150,000 artisanal miners to be supplying around 20 per cent of the cobalt exported from the DRC. ‘These artisanal miners,’ reads the report, ‘referred to as creuseurs in the DRC, mine by hand using the most basic tools to dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground. Artisanal miners include children as young as seven who scavenge for rocks containing cobalt in the discarded by-products of industrial mines, and who wash and sort the ore before it is sold.’

This scenario is what prompted the recent formation of the Global Battery Alliance, a team of technology, mining, manufacturing, and energy businesses, international organisations (such as the African Development Bank), and NGOs, all aspiring to significantly improve standards throughout the entire cobalt supply chain.

‘The smartphone that you have in your pocket right now – nobody can tell you that it is an entirely child-free or environmentally clean piece of kit, in terms of the battery within it,’ says Dominic Waughray, Head of Public-Private Partnership at the World Economic Forum, and overseer of the launch and growth of the Global Battery Alliance. ‘There are seven billion smartphones in the world at the moment, with numbers set to rise. So it touches right into our lives on a day-to-day basis, and one can easily follow that back down the value chain.’

It is hoped that by establishing a public-private fund to support resource-constrained grassroots observers on the ground in the DRC, the Global Battery Alliance can help scale up its efforts to create a more transparent chain, squeezing out artisanal miners, and making it possible to feed the world’s growing demand for electronics with what would currently be viewed as niche ‘ethical’ batteries.

This was published in the November 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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