Features
4 Dec 18

BMW to the rescue for sustainable cobalt mining

BMW Group launched cross-industry project to enhance sustainable cobalt mining, in order to clean up artisanal cobalt mining in the DRC.

Together with BASF SE, Samsung SDI and Samsung Electronics, BMW Group launched a joint cobalt pilot project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The region contains the world’s largest known reserves of cobalt, which is a key component in the production of batteries for the automotive and electronics industries. Hence, all battery producers depend on the region’s cobalt mining, which is often viewed as not sustainable both in terms of human rights violations and environmental risks. 

Artisanal miners

The partnerships aims to improve artisanal mining working conditions, as well as living conditions for surrounding communities. Nevertheless, the project starts small with one pilot mine within the next three years, which will not be operated by any of the partners. 

The project addresses artisanal miners specifically, rather than the large industrial mining companies, which account for 80 to 85% percent of the cobalt mining industry. Nevertheless, studies such as a recent one in Nature (2018), pointed out that villages which were converted into artisanal mining sites were facing severe health and environmental problems. The case study performed in the town of Kolwezi, for instance, showed that the people had much higher levels of cobalt in their urine and blood than people living in a nearby control area, the differences being even most pronounced for children. 

Workable solutions

The pilot must result in identifying workable solutions that lead to better working conditions at the mine site. If proven effective, they could be scaled up to other legal artisanal mine sites and enhance systemic challenges in the long run. 

The project can be seen in a broader awareness on the topic, since other initiatives are addressing the sustainability of the supply chain of batteries as well, such as the Global Battery Alliance (GBA), that aims to address the unsustainability of the supply chains for EV batteries as well and has partnerships with BASF, the Volkswagen Group, Audi and Umicore among others. 

The question about the sustainability of the supply chain becomes more urgent, because of the increasing use of lithium-ion batteries, used in the majority of electronic equipment, such as laptops and smartphones, but for EVs as well. In order to consider EVs as a real sustainable transport mode, the entire supply chain should be sustainable as well. These iniatives might be a step in that direction.

Authored by: Fien Van den steen