Global Energy Justice: The Case of Cobalt

Cornelia Wörmann, BA African Studies, Leipzig University

The minerals in the batteries of electric vehicles that enable the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the industrialised countries originate for the most part in countries of the Global South where they are extracted under inhumane working conditions, including child labour. Cobalt, mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is no exception. On a global scale, this constitutes a major energy injustice in all its three dimensions: distributive, procedural and recognition justice.

1. The Three Dimensions of Energy Justice

Energy Justice is a vast and complex approach and the following introduction is by no means meant to be complete. There are a lot of different aspects and categories, but for the African context, the distinction between distributive, procedural and recognition justice (the concrete terms can vary slightly) is the most common. Distributive justice deals with the access to and the affordability of energy services as well as the problem of energy poverty. Based on the modern social contract theory of the philosopher John Rawls (and its extensions by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum), a ‘fair’ distribution includes on the one hand ensuring constant access to clean and safe energy for all, and on the other using revenues from mining projects for the benefit of the worst-off society members, e.g. mine communities (i.e. “those working or living off the mine”[1]). That includes setting up and implementing just institutions.[2][3] In this process, procedural justice becomes important as it centres on democratic participation structures in decision-making. “Who gets to decide? And how? Whose interests are recognized?”[1] are the core questions to be asked. Here, a discursive power element can be seen when the affected groups or communities are underrepresented or even completely excluded from consultations and decision-making, being made subject to the decrees of others. On the African continent, procedural justice is of special relevance because of its many colonial legacies. It also includes enabling all affected communities to participate effectively, e.g. through full information disclosure, education and empowerment programmes. The last aspect, also of specific importance to African societies, is the more cultural and symbolic recognition justice. It ensures the dignity and the physical and mental integrity of every individual as equal and fair treatment and rights based for example on the justice ideal of Immanuel Kant. It focuses on levelling out disadvantages of particularly vulnerable or marginalised groups like children, the elderly or the disabled as well. Problems like corruption, the unequal distribution of natural resources or political and physical repression (summarised by the ‘resource curse’ literature) work against this ideal. Listed like this, it becomes clear that all three dimensions of Energy Justice are closely linked.[3][4][5][6]

2. Energy Justice and the Cobalt Supply Chain

Applying the concept to the example of the cobalt supply chain and electric vehicle production for the ‘green revolution’, it is necessary to take a global approach. Despite its wealth in natural resources, the DRC, like most other African countries, exports almost all of its extracted cobalt mainly unprocessed without getting the chance to create more revenue through processing and refining or using it for the development of its own green mobility (that it is as far away from as one can possibly be, considering that its citizens don’t even have safe access to energy in general). Instead, this exploitation structure enables the countries in the Global North to work towards their goal of reducing CO2 emissions without significantly changing their consumption patterns. Furthermore, not a small part of that energy transition runs on child labour and human rights violations among artisanal and small scale miners (including women), rendering it unjust in terms of distributive as well as recognition justice. As most of these miners work illegally due to a lack of (viable) authorized artisanal and small scale mining (ASM) zones (so-called ZEAs), e.g. on the premises of large-scale mining (LSM) companies, they also enjoy no participation rights or fair representation at the government level and thus no procedural justice either. So generally, it can be concluded that the green transition through electric vehicle adoption is built upon an asymmetric and exploiting power relationship with the Global North once again dominating the African continent.[7][8]

3. The Case of Cobalt

3.1 Cobalt and Electric Vehicles

It’s been decades since scientists and activists first pointed out the dramatic consequences of climate change caused mostly by the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.[3][9] Now, slowly, politics, company behaviour and consumer demands are starting to react to the worsening scenarios, developing strategies to reduce emissions and environmental pollution. One of these is the large-scale adoption of electric vehicles that are becoming increasingly popular among many stakeholders nowadays. However, electric vehicles are not the optimal, problem-free solution its supporters want everyone to believe they are: Among other issues, they rely on lithium-ion batteries that require several critical resources to store energy. A publicly long neglected component is cobalt, a mineral that (at least partly) is extracted under inhumane conditions in the Global South. By far the biggest global supplier of raw cobalt is the DRC in Central Africa that holds 57% of the worldwide cobalt supply and almost 50% of its reserves.[10] A great proportion of this cobalt is sourced through ASM that is known for its many human rights violations. With global demand for electric vehicles rising rapidly as many nations aspire to achieve green mobility standards, cobalt production is increasing accordingly and cobalt prices soar which makes the topic (along with the human rights and environmental issues that come with it) even more important for the future of humanity.[11][12][13][14][15][16][17][18]

3.2 Cobalt Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM)

ASM is basically defined as “miners who carry out mining activities using their own resources and tools”[9], which involves mining by hand tools only. Artisanal mining is mostly done by substance miners whereas small-scale mining “includes enterprises or individuals that employ workers for mining” [9].[8] ASM cobalt mining in the DRC mainly takes place in the south-eastern provinces Haut-Katanga and Lualaba (former Katanga province). The ASM sector in the DRC is quite strong, employing about 150,000-200,000 miners and supplying up to 90% of the cobalt export production in 2002 and still 20-25% today (though exact figures are hard to come by). It developed after the big parastatal mining companies like Gécamines broke down in the 1990s due to financial mismanagement, corruption and civil wars and thousands of individuals turned to ASM to survive. The sector is poorly formalised and many of the miners work illegally as pointed out above. Their activities include digging for cobalt ores in tunnels that can go down up to 60 metres, collecting cobalt in tailings of LSM companies as well as washing and sorting the ores in rivers and streams before transporting them to buying houses.[6][8][10][11][12][14][19]

3.3 Social Impacts of Cobalt ASM

The occupational health and safety risks are manifold. Mine accidents including collapsing shafts, suffocation and fires or explosions are common and the lack of protective equipment like gloves, boots or face masks can lead to potentially fatal respiratory diseases from cobalt dust, different types of work-related injuries and long-term pain from carrying heavy loads like sacks of cobalt ore. The ores being washed in streams and rivers that serve as drinking sources at the same time, water pollution then poses another health and environmental risk originating from ASM. Moreover, the sector is especially prone to the worst forms of child labour according to the ILO Convention No. 182. Children as young as five work alongside their parents, mostly searching for cobalt in LSM tailings or washing and sorting ores. To do that, they often have to get past private or public security forces hired by the LSM companies that are known for abusing children as punishment for trespassing (often through beatings and whipping). That way, the children are either missing school completely or work after school hours or on weekends and holidays to support their families and also to earn the money necessary for attending school in the first place.[6][8][9][10][11][20]

3.4 Approaches Towards Sustainable Sourcing in Mineral Supply Chains

There are various approaches to address these challenges in the cobalt supply chain, but also more broadly for minerals in general ranging from inspection panels, energy truth commissions and improved impact assessments to multi-stakeholder initiatives and due diligence standards.[3] The cobalt supply chain is a ‘transitional triad’, meaning that the buyer and the second-tier supplier are beginning to build a permanent link between them to ensure their products meet a certain standard.[21]

In general, all actions aiming towards sustainable sourcing are based on environmental or social standards as they create legitimacy through inclusivity, discourse, control and transparency (notice also the link of these criteria to the three dimensions of Energy Justice).[22] According to the amount of stakeholders integrated and the breadth of their focus, they can be classified into ‘Focal Issue’ (centred on a particular country, raw material or problem), ‘Particular Common Ground’ (broader integration) or ‘General Common Ground’ standards (topic of relevance in society as a whole).[23] Most of the mineral standards fall into the first or second category. The most important international standards for sustainable and responsible sourcing are the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNPGs), the UN Global Compact, the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas and the China Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals & Chemicals Importers and Exporters’ Guidance plus the EU Regulation 2017/821 and the US Dodd Frank Act, Section 1502 concerning the issue of the ‘conflict minerals’ tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold (3TG), which have long been the only focus of regulations. These standards all aim towards a “’human rights due diligence’ – a process to identify, prevent, address, and account for [the companies’] impact on human rights throughout their supply chains”[24] that also includes risk mitigation and remediation efforts.[8][10][11]

For the implementation of these standards, various initiatives have been founded in the past decade, defined as “voluntary, multistakeholder codes of conduct”[3] that include governments, companies and civil society. They too can have a rather broad focus like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) that the DRC joined in 2005, the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI), the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) and the Responsible Raw Materials Initiative (RRMI) or be centred on a specific issue. Initiatives concerning cobalt are e.g. the Cobalt Industry Responsible Assessment Framework, the Umicore Sustainable Procurement Framework for Cobalt or the Responsible Cobalt Initiative. Furthermore, there are multiple projects, implemented by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or private and public development agencies and sponsored by companies among other donors, to improve the situation of the ASM miners on the ground.[10][11][24][25][26]

4. Discourse Analysis: Supply Chain Due Diligence in the Automotive Industry

4.1 Michel Foucault’s Discourse Concept

Michel Foucault, a philosopher of the post-structuralism approach in the twentieth century, is considered to be one of the founders of discourse analysis. For him, discourses are “careful, rationalized, organized statements made by experts […] backed by validation procedures identifying [them] as ‘true’ within communities of experts”[27]. The discourse as a social practice is imbedded in the “power-truth-knowledge complex” [27] where the dominant actors get to define ‘truths’ or ‘problems’ etc. Thus, a ‘truth’ is actually socially constructed and then made absolute in an act of domination. Therefore, a power asymmetry is inherent to every discourse as it generates power by determining what is utterable and hence doable (so-called “politics of truth”[27.]).

4.2 Amnesty International Reports

Amnesty International is an internationally operating human rights NGO founded in 1961 with headquarters in London. Its first report on cobalt extraction in the DRC, This Is What We Die For from 2016, brought the issue of human rights abuses in the cobalt supply chain and the indifference or ignorance of downstream companies (i.e. companies from the smelters/refiners onward) to public attention for the first time. All previous activities and laws had been centred on managing the ‘conflict minerals’ 3TG, never including cobalt. In 2015, Amnesty International conducted a huge research project on the ground, examining five mine sites in southern DRC and interviewing nearly 90 people including children. Furthermore, they themselves traced the entire cobalt supply chain from mine site over traders and buying houses, processors and exporters in the DRC as well as battery component and battery manufacturers to major consumer brands including Daimler and the Volkswagen Group (VW); something that has never been done before. They wrote letters to 26 companies to understand all the supply chain’s links, also asking questions about due diligence policies and measures with the result of noting an “absence of due diligence from mine to marketplace”[8].

Amnesty International heavily criticised all companies involved in the supply chain for neglecting their duties and even accused some of them of turning a blind eye to further benefit from the abuses in the DRC. Their answers lacked details as to implementation practices of due diligence policies and none of the downstream companies had been in touch with their smelter Huayou Cobalt prior to Amnesty International’s letter, many even denying the connection altogether. This Is What We Die For makes strictly demands from the major refining company Huayou Cobalt and all downstream companies to comply with their due diligence obligations including transparency along the entire supply chain back to the smelters, risk mitigation measures and corrective action. Moreover, the downstream companies, especially popular consumer brands, are expected to use their leverage over their suppliers to ensure due diligence.

One year later, Amnesty International published a follow-up report, Time to Recharge, assessing various companies’ (improved) due diligence performances. For that, downstream companies were asked to disclose information about their supply chain links to the DRC, their due diligence policies and systems as well as their mitigation and remediation efforts. The automotive industry was ranked second-best, considerably lagging behind the electronics companies causing Amnesty International to state that “much more action is urgently needed”[26]; Daimler was even ranked among the poorest performers in its sector. However, Amnesty International acknowledged that some progress has been made as commitment and awareness had increased, even though action is still lacking for example in supply chain mapping, verifying the claims made by suppliers or policies explicitly mentioning cobalt. The category most companies failed in was mitigation and remediation and companies were accused of “hiding behind voluntary industry initiatives”[26], thus denying their individual responsibility.

In these reports, Amnesty International stages itself very effectively as an ‘expert’, drawing upon the ‘voices on the ground’ by citing interviewees to gain credibility and legitimacy.[8] That way, those affected – here miners – are included into the definition of the common ‘problem’ of human rights abuses. On the other hand, by getting to interpret and frame these interviews with miners in its reports, Amnesty International also exerts power over the them. It establishes itself, a white-dominated, northern NGO, as representative and spokesperson for the miners in the DRC, thus actually excluding them from the discourse. Towards the addressed companies, Amnesty International acts fully in its role as a righteous whistleblower denouncing social grievances and using very open and demanding wordings. Calling its claims “recommendations”[8][26] seems to be a little hypocritical in that context. Furthermore, it is rather harsh to publish a follow-up report after only one year, giving the companies very limited time to implement structural changes. On the other hand, that had the effect of keeping the issue in the public mind and put more pressure on the companies to uphold their reputation. Also, the communication structures were improved in Time to Recharge since Amnesty International gave the addressed companies the opportunity to respond before the report was published.

4.3 Daimler AG’s Responses and Due Diligence Practices

In 2016 and 2017, Daimler denied its connection with DRC cobalt entirely, making no further investigation of the supply chain apparent. In This Is What We Die For, it even admitted to not knowing exactly where its cobalt supply came from. Amnesty International therefore accused it of “attempt[ing] to ignore its responsibility”[26]. Daimler, like many other companies including VW, likes to rely on general statements such as “’adhering to international human rights standards’” or “[c]hild labour is not allowed in any phase of production or processing”[28]. Its Supplier Sustainability Standards and audits that are supposed to ensure adherence to human rights are only obligatory for its direct suppliers; it lies in the latter’s responsibility to guarantee “that these Sustainability Standards are adhered to throughout the supply chain”[28]. Daimler only offers training on due diligence and sustainability issues for its suppliers.[29][30[31]

Daimler consciously decided not to avoid ‘risk’ cobalt from the DRC according to the “principle of using leverage before withdrawing”[30], but is making efforts to improve the situation on the ground, e.g. in an educational project in co-operation with the organisation Bon Pasteur. After Amnesty International’s first report, Daimler started holding a working group explicitly about cobalt at its annual Stakeholder Dialogue that later developed into the Daimler Sustainability Dialogue and also began building a human rights due diligence system, which is complete today as the Daimler Human Rights Respect System (HRRS) that can include second-tier suppliers. Since 2018, the entire cobalt supply chain is audited according to OECD standards by the independent firm RCS Global to achieve better transparency. The company also publicly discloses identified risks and a list of its smelters and refiners and plans to put in place management measures for all ‘risk raw materials’ by 2028.[29][30]

In 2017, Daimler was already a member of the European Automotive Working Group on Supply Chain Sustainability by CSR Europe which includes human rights risk assessments and supply chain mapping and participated in industry-specific meetings with other carmakers including VW within the frame of the German Global Compact Network. It is one of the founders of the UN Global Compact and DRIVE Sustainability to jointly improve due diligence along the supply chain. Daimler also joined RMI and IRMA, mainly for certification and monitoring purposes.[26][29][30][31]

4.4 Volkswagen Group’s Responses and Due Diligence Practices

In 2016, VW similarly stated when asked by Amnesty International about its connection to DRC cobalt that “’[t]o our best knowledge, the Cobalt in our batteries does not originate from the DRC’”[8] nor did it make any efforts to trace or disclose its cobalt supply chain and denied any alleged risks. Its only policy on raw materials referred exclusively to 3TG although it stated that its supplier requirements “’cover all minerals and materials’”[26]. But even then, VW already had an “’internal system for supply chain management’”[26] in place and conducted relatively elaborate risk assessments and audits of its first-tier suppliers that even led to temporary suspension in some cases. The results along with further information were at least partly publicly disclosed in its annual Volkswagen Sustainability Report.[26] Like Daimler, it is a member of the European Automotive Working Group on Supply Chain Sustainability and DRIVE Sustainability as well as the RMI and the Global Battery Alliance formed by up- and downstream companies, international organisations and NGOs; VW also joined EITI and is part of the Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative (CFSI).[26][32][33]

On the other hand, VW still hasn’t disclosed the identities of its smelters or refiners until today although it claimed to be “in the process”[26] of doing so in 2017 and has been assigned “considerable room for improvement”[26] by Amnesty International. Its Policy on Sustainable Raw Minerals dates back to 2017 although it is currently under revision, and explicitly includes cobalt referring to the OECD Guidance. Similarly to Daimler, the policy as well as the Code of Conduct for Business Partners put the responsibility of ensuring the respect of human rights throughout the supply chain in the suppliers’ own hands and only expresses VW’s expectations concerning e.g. forced and child labour, occupational health and safety and due diligence for raw minerals including cobalt. Compared to Daimler’s supplier requirements, VW’s are much more specific and elaborate.[32][34][35]

Its report exclusively focuses on responsible raw materials and classifies cobalt as one of the “priority raw materials”[33] as it takes up many of the risks first pointed out by Amnesty International. It boastingly states that more than 1000 “previously unknown sub-suppliers […] including mine sites”[33] were identified. Furthermore, VW developed a Raw Material Due Diligence Management System in accordance with OECD standards including a Supply Chain Complaint Mechanism that is supposed to be implemented in 2021 and “intensified its direct supplier and sub-supplier engagement”[33] including dialogues and workshops as well as risk assessment measures such as audits, supply chain mappings and even in-country investigations. These also serve as risk mitigation and corrective action programmes. To improve the situation on the ground, VW joined the Cobalt for Development (C4D) Project by the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) to promote responsible ASM, education and alternative income opportunities.

4.5 General Assessment of the Discourse

Daimler and VW both have come a long way since Amnesty International’s first assessment, centring more and more of their due diligence activities specifically on cobalt. Statements like “Kobalt: Die Achtung und Wahrung der Menschenrechte in der Lieferkette hat für uns oberste Priorität”[29] were nowhere to be seen in 2016. Even admitting that “it cannot be excluded that several of the above-mentioned risks are also present in Volkswagen Group supply chains”[33] is a big step considering the previous denials. In their communication process with Amnesty International, both companies were always very polite and repeatedly invited Amnesty International for its expertise to co-operations and dialogues. However, audits without consequences and membership in voluntary initiatives still bear the risk of greenwashing, and even development projects can be an expression of power asymmetries and domination according to the post-development discourse and the ‘white saviour complex’ as international NGOs and donors define what measures benefit the locals most.[27] Furthermore, these projects serve as a strategy to ease ‘northern’ consciousnesses and simultaneously advertise the company. In wordings in letters, documents or on the website, that strategy can also be observed. VW partly tried to get away with excuses like constantly changing and highly complex supply chains or confidentiality agreements with its suppliers. Moreover, both companies never had direct contact with the miners themselves.

5. Awareness Among Car Owners

The automotive industry has seen a huge increase in awareness and due diligence in the past five years. However, the same cannot be said about electric vehicle and car owners in general. Surprisingly, there seems to be little difference in awareness levels between people possessing an electric vehicle and owners of petrol or diesel cars; out of the three electric vehicle owners, just one knew that their batteries contain cobalt whereas of the control group, only one out of eight people didn’t know. So in the sample, the electric vehicle owners were actually informed worse with two people admitting they knew very little or practically nothing about cobalt extraction. The owners of petrol or diesel cars generally knew slightly more; the average stating that they knew some things about cobalt extraction. The main sources of information for all people were television or newspapers. The three electric vehicle owners all stated that they had been very poorly or barely informed at the time of the purchase with two admitting that they might have changed their minds if they had known more. Despite their lack of concrete knowledge, nine participants assessed the extractive conditions of cobalt as very problematic or problematic, only one denying any risks at all and one admitting that he couldn’t say. As reasons for this assessment respondents listed bad or unhealthy working conditions, possibility of child labour, environmental pollution, financial exploitation of the miners or generally catastrophic extractive conditions.

By contrast, when asked whether they themselves were taking action to improve the conditions on the ground or to achieve a fairer supply chain, most participants denied that. Only two, both not owning an electric vehicle and one not even owning a car at all, stated that they generally tried to consume responsibly or were supporting NGOs through donations. Most of the others justified their lack of action by not knowing enough about the topic or never having dealt with or thought about it before. The five people that said they were ready to take action, including one electric vehicle owner, mostly referred to more or less passive options like donations to NGOs, information campaigns or distributing flyers; one person even called upon the international community to create structures, rules and mechanisms for consumers that would basically make them support a fair supply chain automatically, without having to inform themselves through their own initiative. Whereas there seems to be no correlation between educational qualification, gender and awareness level or knowledge (with a habilitated male person among the ones knowing or caring the least), age seems to play a major role. Roughly two age groups were covered in the survey, the first containing eight people at the age of 33 up to 42, the second consisting of three people aged 57, 66 and 71. Among the younger participants, the awareness of cobalt-related risks and problems as well as the action taken to change the situation or the readiness to do so were much higher as they were also better informed regardless of whether or not they owned an electric vehicle. Given the small size of the sample, the study is not statistically representative. Yet, even the small sample suggests the hypothesis that awareness structures are not related to possessing an electric vehicle whose batteries run on cobalt, but to the increased commitment to fair and responsible consumption of the younger generations. That can be seen (partly) as due to a lack of action taken by car producers and sellers as it is their responsibility to inform potential buyers about the risks and human rights violations along the supply chain. Both parties consequently still have a long way to go towards a responsible cobalt supply chain down to the end consumer and towards long term global energy justice.

6. References

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