Cobalt: Transparency is Obligatory

It is fundamental to reducing dependence on oil. The extraction of cobalt is riddled with abuses and danger, especially in the DR Congo.

Cobalt has many uses, most importantly in the production of electric cars to reduce dependence on oil and to combat climate change. However, the production of this mineral is deeply flawed, considering that 60% comes from the DR Congo where working conditions are akin to slavery and fraught with dangers.

In particular, one fifth of the 90,000 tons extracted last year were provided by improvised, polluting and dangerous systems involving a labour force that included   35,000 young boys. Amnesty International, in its 2016 report, condemned this practice which causes respiratory diseases and deaths due to the collapse of underground mines.

After almost two years, Amnesty again verified the situation and published Time to Recharge which analysed the practices of 29 large companies using cobalt and demonstrating the traceability of workings that serve some companies – such as Apple and Samsung – and also a serious lack of transparency on the part of others like Microsoft and Renault. IBM, one of the companies that are trying to improve traceability in the various phases of production of the mineral, together with Ford, launched Blockchain, a platform for tracing all the operations: extraction, transportation and processing.

In brief, this new attention, also through the media, could help to improve the situation of a country with so much conflict and corruption which, despite its enormous riches, is one of the poorest on the planet. This year alone, the duty on cobalt exports has been raised from 2% to 10%.

With rising prices in recent years and the problematic control of the supply chain, there is a tendency to reduce the cobalt content of the batteries (Tesla has succeeded in reducing the amount from 11 kg to 4,5 kg per vehicle) as well as a frenzied work of research to discover alternative materials.

However, considering that cobalt will play a decisive role in the economy of the future, it is to be hoped that international pressure may force the elimination of the more dangerous productions and introduce criteria of transparency capable of making cobalt “socially acceptable”.