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Surging Mineral Demand Produces Sharper Focus on ‘Ethical’ Batteries

Child labour artisan mining Congo cobalt

Blockchain-enabled transparency, rigorous third-party mining standards, local production, and recycling are among the strategies in play to create batteries that are planet- and people-friendly—a tall order, given that the supply chains supporting the EV revolution remain linked to environmental degradation and human suffering.

“By decade’s end the battery market will be worth C$116 billion annually (not including investments in supply chains), up from $14.6 billion in 2017,” writes Corporate Knights, citing research from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. While batteries will remain indispensable to a carbon-free future, the World Bank has forecast that “global demand for low-carbon-economy minerals such as lithium, graphite, and nickel will skyrocket by 965%, 383%, and 108% respectively by 2050.”

That surge in demand will require careful management and scrupulous oversight, to ensure the serious issues already known to plague the extraction sector, especially in the developing world, do not correspondingly accelerate.

The “dark side of green minerals” was revealed in 2016, when Amnesty International released its “damning investigation into the child labour-plagued cobalt mines of war-torn Congo,” writes Corporate Knights. That country holds 60% of the world’s cobalt—a mineral called “the blood diamond of batteries” due to its association with cruel mining practices. 

In 2019, a lawsuit against major cobalt-dependent companies including Tesla, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Dell was launched “on behalf of 14 Congolese families who say their children were seriously injured or killed working in cobalt mines earlier in the year,” Corporate Knights says. And cobalt is not the only mineral implicated in human suffering and environmental costs: “Draining of water reserves for vast lithium mines in the salt plains of Latin America has been fingered for fuelling water wars, social unrest, and mine strikes in Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina.” 

As demand for “green minerals” accelerates, says Corporate Knights, the question is “whether green economy minerals—and the companies that source them—can help fuel thriving, peaceful, and sustainable development in communities with key mineral reserves—rather than exacerbating local unrest.” 

Last year, Amnesty challenged carmakers to develop a fully ethical battery by 2024, and some corporations are responding. “A few leading car companies—BMW, Daimler, and Renault, as well as Samsung and Apple—have started publishing supply chain data,” notes Corporate Knights. Volvo, after unveiling its first fully electric car, announced that it will begin tracing its cobalt supply chain using blockchain technology, a step that major cobalt producer Glencore has also pledged to take.

“Not that blockchain alone will solve human rights or environmental violations,” cautions Corporate Knights, citing an observation from Aimée Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA), that blockchain tracking is only as good as the information fed into it.

The IRMA is aiming “to do for mining what Forest Stewardship Council certification has done for forestry by creating a trusted standard for sustainable paper and wood products,” writes Corporate Knights. Microsoft, BMW, and Tiffany are already members of the new program. Swedish battery developer Northvolt, which joined with Volkswagen to create the European Battery Union, plans to create an industry “from mining and refining to manufacturing and recycling” that has “a minimal carbon footprint and the highest ambitions for recycling to enable the European transition to renewable energy.” 

Canada, too, is “aggressively” moving to secure itself a “major battery hub,” writes Corporate Knights. However, “activists are quick to point out that Canadian mines aren’t beyond reproach,” flagging concerns about water contamination and Indigenous consent.

And then there is the upcoming problem of e-waste, as the first wave of at least 250 million EVs reach retirement age. An answer may lie “under the floorboards of aging cars,” notes Corporate Knights, as wider refurbishment and re-use become established practices, along with a growing recognition of the vast potential in battery recycling. Citing the work of two Canadian start-ups currently on track to recover between 80 to 100% of all lithium battery components, Corporate Knights states that “keeping battery recycling close to home is one way to minimize the human rights and environmental hazards that have dogged e-waste recycling overseas.”

Despite these advances, there is a bedrock reality that the minerals needed to ensure electrification in perpetuity are scarce, or nested in fragile ecosystems. While the world waits for fully recycled, ethical batteries, says Corporate Knights, we must “prioritize investments in electric-powered public transit infrastructure over pushing everyone to buy a new electric car”.