Last year batteries used in EVs became the world number one use for cobalt, and amid human rights concerns over the way the rare earth mineral is mined. The Transport Minister is keeping a close eye on the role New Zealand is playing 

Transport Minister Michael Wood wants to know if New Zealand can do more when it comes to the rising demand for cobalt. 

Earlier this year Wood travelled to Norway for the International Electric Vehicle Symposium and Exhibition. 

Among the primary discussions about how to increase demand and imports of EVs to New Zealand, Wood also wanted to talk about labour standards. 

“Over 70 percent of the world’s cobalt is sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with poor working conditions associated particularly with artisanal and small-scale mining.  

“Artisanal and small-scale mining cobalt workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo account for an estimated 110,000 to 150,000 workers (of which at least 40,000 may be children). They are exposed to extremely hazardous working conditions, with both immediate threats (such as cave-ins) and long-term health problems,” said a briefing paper prepared for him by officials before he left.

In the year ended March, electric vehicle imports to New Zealand were triple the year before, and with government incentives to purchase plug-ins as well as improving infrastructure to support it, the demand isn’t waning anytime soon. 

A May report from the UK-based Cobalt Institute found in 2021 cobalt demand from electric vehicles overtook other battery applications for the first time to become the largest end-use sector. 

According to the Institute it now accounts for 34 percent of demand and is forecast to account for half by 2026. 

“This problem is exacerbated by the increasing demand for cobalt connected with the increasing demand for EVs and other electronic goods, driven in part through government interventions,” Woods’ officials noted.  

Wood’s discussions with his counterparts in Europe were “exploratory” in nature, but something the minister, who also holds the Workplace Relations and Safety and Immigration portfolios that both take him into labour standards discussions, will keep a close eye on.  

The human rights issues associated with cobalt mining in the Congo are not new, and in 2017 the African country promised to clean things up. 

By 2020 the US Labour Department decided a “moderate” improvement had been made in eradicating child labour but that children continued to be forced to work in artisanal mines. 

The International Labour Organisation, UNICEF and RCS Global Group all began programmes in the Congo last year in an effort to improve workers’ rights and stop child exploitation.  

A number of private sector initiatives are also underway. 

“There may be opportunities to improve conditions for cobalt miners, but these should build upon the wide-ranging efforts already undertaken internationally,” New Zealand officials advised. 

Manufacturers of EVs are also looking at developing batteries that don’t rely on cobalt. 

MacDiarmid Institute co-director and Victoria University of Wellington physical chemistry professor Justin Hodgkiss said global efforts to move away from the mineral were moving faster than expected. 

“Half of the cars that Tesla has manufactured this year have used cobalt-free batteries and actually, I was quite blown away by that, because I was expecting to tell you that scientists are working hard on it… and I was actually really surprised it’s better than that.” 

Nissan has promised to start using cobalt-free batteries by the mid-2020s and most other EV carmarkers have signalled the future will be sans cobalt.  

Although it’s not the child labour concerns that have manufacturers looking for alternatives. 

“Cobalt is already the most expensive part of the battery. More than everything else put together, and the prices and availability and supply chains are wildly unpredictable… and when you’re manufacturing, hundreds of thousands of cars a year there’s every incentive to get rid of cobalt,” Hodgkiss said. 

He said domestically New Zealand scientists were also working to remove cobalt dependence in lithium-ion batteries.  

“TasmanIon is making batteries that not only eliminate cobalt but they also eliminate lithium, and they replace the lithium with aluminium, which is abundant and safe.  

“And so as well as eliminating the cobalt, they also eliminate the things that explode. So that’s very early stages, and a lot of development needed until it could really get into industry but it’s an example of really innovative battery material science happening in New Zealand.” 

He said similar innovation was also underway when it came to e-waste and recycling lithium-ion batteries.  

“There’s no fundamental reason why cobalt can’t be eliminated. So I’m absolutely not blasé about the concerns around cobalt, but I’m very optimistic that we will quickly be past cobalt.” 

He said the human rights concerns should not mean consumers stick with the status quo. 

“I think we should definitely be urgently addressing these issues to avoid the terrible human rights consequences of cobalt mining but we should not give up and think that this is a showstopper for EVs. 

 “Something that concerns me is that people have a surface impression that ‘oh no, EVs are bad and unethical’, but this is really a completely different thing altogether.” 

Earlier this year the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment consulted on a proposal which would place greater responsibilities on companies to ensure their supply chains were lawful.

Under the proposals, all organisations would be required to take action if they become aware of modern slavery or worker exploitation, with larger companies required to do more. 

It’s unclear what the legislation would mean for EVs coming into New Zealand, with organisations likely to be at the very end of the supply chain and not involved in production. 

“Consideration of the measures an organisation takes to address particular risks would need to be informed by factors such as their ability to influence the relevant suppliers and the potential harm that could occur if no action was taken. We anticipate that the actions large organisations take will be informed by international frameworks such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the OECD due diligence framework for responsible supply chains of minerals,” transport officials said.

The work now sits with Wood under his Workplace Relations and Safety portfolio. 

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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