The electric vehicle (EV) revolution has resulted in an ever-increasing demand for cobalt. As a producer of more than 65% of the world’s cobalt, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is well placed to meet this demand.
At the same time, however, it has become ever more vital that this battery metal is sourced in a responsible and ethical manner – something that the DRC government is committed to. Helping to achieve this goal is the Cobalt Institute.
HLENGIWE MOTAUNG finds out more from SUSANNAH MCLAREN, the organisation’s head of responsible sourcing and sustainability.
The Cobalt Institute (CI) is the global trade association for the cobalt industry, representing about 80% of the global cobalt market. The CI is dedicated to promoting the sustainable
and responsible production and use of cobalt in all its forms and applications.
As a knowledge centre, the Institute generates research on all cobalt-related issues – including sustainability efforts and human rights challenges – for governments, agencies, industry, academia, the media and civil society. “We represent upstream players; the mid-stream comprising traders, recyclers and refiners; and also downstream users. As a result, that gives us the leverage we need to effect positive change because we represent an entire industry and not just one segment of the value chain,” McLaren states.
The organisation places responsible cobalt sources high on its agenda and has initiated a Responsible Sourcing Programme led by McLaren. One key project the CI has recently completed is a comprehensive analysis of all stages of cobalt production – from mining to recycling – and the actual and potential human rights and environmental risks related to them. In preparation for emerging environmental and human rights due diligence regulation in Europe and elsewhere, it serves to share a common understanding of the actual and potential risks in the cobalt industry and to highlight the trends and gaps vis-à-vis future legislation and expectations for companies in the cobalt industry.
“This tool has shaped the Cobalt Institute’s responsible sourcing priorities for the next two years, including the identification of opportunities for leverage and collective action by the cobalt industry and wider stakeholders to drive impact-oriented outcomes” explains McLaren.
Government making headway
The Cobalt Institute represents some of the biggest cobalt producers in the DRC, including Glencore, Eurasian Resources Group (ERG) and China Molybdenum.
“Given the amount of cobalt that is produced in the DRC, the country is strategically the most important destination when it comes to this battery metal,” adds McLaren.
She goes on further to state that to date, the DRC government has been receptive to the work of the cobalt industry and key stakeholders to raise standards. “The government acknowledges that there are risks and challenges associated with cobalt mining in the country. This includes dealing with artisanal mining, especially in the informal sector.
Positively, it is engaging with various organisations such as USAID and the International Labour Organisation to formalise and improve conditions for these mining operations.”
The roles of artisanal miners in the DRC cannot be ignored when it comes to the global cobalt supply chain, neither can their challenges be overlooked. The CI estimates there are between 100 000 and 200 000 people who undertake artisanal mining in the DRC.
However, at the same time, McLaren points out artisanal mining is not unique to the cobalt industry. In a sense the issue has at times been over-sensationalised by the media, given the scrutiny that the DRC cobalt sector is undergoing, largely due to the EV revolution. There has been a growing requirement to intensify adherence to sustainable methods as downstream players, particularly the automotive sector, are demanding that cobalt is sustainably sourced.
“Initially, the consensus was to steer away from artisanal mining, but now there is a realisation that it is not only contrary to inclusive due diligence but also part of the way forward as we need access to more cobalt.
“Artisanal mining is a lifeline for millions of Congolese who live in extreme poverty. Cutting this source out of the cobalt supply chain is neither feasible, due to the interwoven nature of the cobalt supply chain, nor desirable from a development perspective.
Instead, companies committed to setting up responsible cobalt sourcing practices should consider how to take responsibility for addressing the severe practices that blemish the artisanal sector such as systemic child labour, highly hazardous working conditions, and unfair trading practices exploiting local workers selling to traders on the open market.
“But addressing the root causes related to informal artisanal mining must be a shared responsibility in which all actors across the value chain play their part. This is why the CI is an active contributor to important multi-stakeholder initiatives, including the Global Battery Alliance and the Fair Cobalt Alliance, set up to raise standards on the ground and address the root causes of these issues.”
One of the driving forces behind responsibly sourced cobalt is the end user. Nowadays, manufacturers are adhering to the clarion call from its customers that all its materials be mined ethically and in a sustainable manner. It is for this reason that they keep a close eye on mining operations in the DRC and has been engaging at a ground level to ensure that regulations are put in place and industry standards are adhered to.
There can be no underplaying the role that cobalt plays in achieving a just and green energy transition. McLaren adds: “We are taking a just transition lens to the cobalt sector to understand what it means in practice for the Institute’s membership as well as the broader cobalt sector. We are seeking to help drive the green economy in a way that respects human rights and the environment; creating new opportunities for social and economic development whilst placing agency in the hands of workers and communities throughout the full value chain. Our work is particularly relevant to cobalt sourced from the DRC.”
When it comes to the major cobalt miners in the DRC, McLaren is pleased with the positive feedback and cooperation from the organisation’s members.
“We are delighted to support our members on this journey and strive for leadership in the sector. Indeed, this year the Cobalt Institute launched the Cobalt Environment, Human Rights and Just Transition Group (“The Cobalt Learning Group”), a peer learning group convened to build the capacity of our members to meaningfully improve their due diligence efforts. So far, it looks promising,” she concludes.