Claim: Tesla batteries require Congolese children slaving away in cobalt mines.
Congo supplies ~60% of the world’s cobalt.
Category: Electric vehicles
My Stake: Challenge with 80 TruStake
My Argument / Evidence:
1. Cobalt and the Congo
It is true that the DRC supplies between 50 to 66% of the world’s cobalt (varies by year).
Cobalt mined from the DRC is considered a “conflict mineral,” meaning that it is extracted in a conflict zone and sold to finance war. It’s estimated that 20%
of the cobalt mined in the DRC is done by hand (so-called ‘artisanal mining
’). Many of the artisanal miners in the DRC are children. It is estimated that some 40,000 children
worked in cobalt mines in 2014.
The supply chain for cobalt is young because the level of demand created by lithium-ion batteries is relatively new. As it matures and as demand and price continue to rise, more countries may increase production. Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt is a Chinese company often cited as the source conflict cobalt.
2. Cobalt Use in Batteries
Cobalt is used in Lithium-ion battery cathodes along with nickel, aluminium and manganese. Lithium-ion batteries are the most common type of battery to power electronic devices worldwide including cellphones, laptops etc. There are two main chemistry configuration types - NCA (nickel, cobalt, aluminum) and NMC (nickel, maganese, cobalt). The ratios of each mineral in the battery vary by use and manufacture. Tesla uses an NCA type battery which contain less cobalt than NMC configurations (most EVs use NMC). Furthermore, the trend in the material development world is towards higher-energy, lower-cobalt chemistries.
3. The Sources of Tesla’s Cobalt
Tesla’s batteries are produced in the Gigafactory in Sparks, NV in a partnership with Panasonic. Both Panasonic and Tesla write that they are committed to both ethically source cobalt and to reduce and eventually eliminate it use altogether. Panasonic sources most of its cobalt ethically from the Philippines.
Kenji Tamura, an executive in charge of Panasonic’s automotive battery business stated:
We have already cut down cobalt usage substantially…we are aiming to achieve zero usage in the near future, and development is underway.”
Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk has publicly stated the same.
In May 2018 Tesla filed a Conflict Minerals Report with the SEC in which they wrote:
The report with the SEC also states that Tesla is :
a member of the RMI, which is part of the overall supply chain responsibility organization Responsible Business Alliance (formerly EICC). RMI has expanded its scope beyond conflict minerals, and maintains a cobalt sub-team, of which Tesla is an active participant. This cobalt sub-team is actively working on several initiatives, including developing a due diligence program for cobalt sourcing and covering the risk areas included in the OECD Due Diligence Guidance.
The report also lists all the mining, smelting and refining plants the Tesla sources cobalt from that have passed RMI due diligence.
The supply chain for cobalt is complex and manufacturers often have a hard time tracking down of the source of the cobalt. Tesla had issues in mid 2018 because Panasonic was sourcing some from a Canadian company that purchased cobalt from a supplier/miner in Cuba. Although Tesla may have inadvertently been violating an embargo Cuba, it shows that a least some amount of Tesla’s cobalt is not coming from the Congo.
4. The Future
Cobalt is a relatively common and widely distributed mineral. In the past it was a byproduct of nickel, copper and silver mining. And since the boom in demand, many abandoned silver, and nickel mines have been reopened to mine cobalt. Because of the recent demand and the desire to source it ethically, the price per kg has skyrocketed. The high price is attracting new miners around the world. Including this Canadian town aptly named Cobalt, Canada. Venture firm a16z is investing in a company building software to scout potential cobalt mines.
In sum, although the DRC is currently the world’s biggest supplier of cobalt and 20% of their production includes child labor, there is little evidence that the cobalt in Tesla’s batteries comes from there. In fact, most evidence points to it coming from other sources, such the Philippines via Panasonic. To single out Tesla here is also misleading as all devices that use lithium-ion batteries (phones, laptops, etc) use cobalt and Tesla’s vehicles use less than all other EVs. And both Tesla and Panasonic plan to reduce cobalt to 0% in the future.