Why is your video conferencing in the COVID-19 crisis still polluting the environment? The answer lies in mining cobalt

Guest Post By Hyeyoon Park, 2019-2020 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science

Grounded aircraft and the virtual G20 summit for the outbreak of coronavirus (Image by AP & G20 Saudi Arabia)

In some respects, ironically, COVID-19 is making our earth clean. Drastically reduced air pollutants from factories and transportation, which have been put on pause by the coronavirus, returned blue sky in many regions. Many airlines have drastically reduced their flights as more and more countries around the world impose travel bans. School and university classes moved to online platforms. International conferences are canceled or replaced by virtual meetings. The online G20 summit coping with the global pandemic in March is one of the most recent examples indicating how our world can be shifting toward virtual social connections. A recent NY Times article suggests that the coronavirus outbreak is teaching us how to live online. This unexpected social phenomenon might give you a rosy picture of a better future global environment. For instance, someone might say, “If we keep this behavioral pattern, we are able to make our nature cleaner.” Is this assumption correct? Unfortunately, my answer is ‘no’ because of ‘dirty minerals’ causing conflicts, environmental, and social problems. (I apologize that I cannot give you a cheerful vibe in this depressing season.)

Cobalt is an essential mineral to produce portable batteries equipped in electronic devices and electric vehicles. (Image by Amnesty International and Afrewatch & Evgeniy Parilov)

The rapidly growing dependency of our lifestyle on electronic devices needs more minerals to produce key components of our brand-new laptops or cell phones. Even though our shifting behaviors – such as limiting business flights or commuting – reduce CO2 emissions, our continuous consumption of electronic goods can lead to many pollution issues caused by mining the essential minerals in poor but resource-rich countries. One of the significant mineral resources is cobalt, extracted for producing most portable batteries in laptops, cellphones, and electric vehicles (EV). Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) supplies more than 70% of the world’s cobalt production. Most electronic companies heavily depend on this dominant cobalt supply from DRC. For instance, South Korea has zero cobalt reserve so that its big corporations producing batteries, such as Samsung SDI and LG Chem, entirely depend on importing cobalt. This global cobalt supply chain will not be easily broken down, even though some policymakers started considering how to fully localize the current global production networks due to the coronavirus pandemic. The current global supply chain of cobalt is not clean or green. Cobalt is one of the major dirty minerals.

A child worker in a mining site in DRC (Image by International Rights Advocates)

Since the global demand on cobalt has grown drastically (especially China’s increasing cobalt demand for EV production), its price soared for the past few years. Big corporations are scrambling to buy the precious mineral in DRC, and the livelihood of the local people in the county is beginning to depend more on mining cobalt than any other income sources such as agriculture. However, this cobalt boom in DRC doesn’t lead to improving the living conditions of the local people. Ongoing child labor is one of the biggest problems in the current cobalt mine sites in DRC. Children earn less than one dollar a day to carry cobalt rocks because their families cannot afford the roughly six-dollar school fee. Since Amnesty International published a report about child labor and other human rights abuses in DRC cobalt mining in 2016, similar accusations have continued. Last year, giant US companies such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla were sued by International Rights Advocates, an NGO based on Washington D.C., on behalf of families of the children who were killed or maimed by cobalt mining accidents in DRC. Meanwhile, some NGOs blame Chinese mining companies in DRC, such as Huayou Cobalt as the main culprit for such negative social and environmental issues, because the Chinese companies are the key cobalt suppliers to the major electronic corporations.

Female workers cleaning cobalt particles mined in DRC (Image by CNN)

Lax domestic regulations on social and environmental problems, the severe corruption of government bodies, and irresponsible management of foreign mining companies keep threatening the health of Congolese and the nature of the DRC. Increasing mining activities without stringent rules triggers deforestation, soil degradation, river, or lake pollution making drinking water toxic. The workers in cobalt mine sites get respiratory illnesses and skin diseases. Chronic toxic exposure of local people leads to frequent miscarriages and premature deaths of babies born in the region of cobalt mines (see more details in the Washington Post article, “The hidden costs of cobalt mining”).

These stories show how our continuing consumption of electronic products can lead to tragedies of people and nature in the DRC. Even though your dream car of Tesla is subsidized through a decarbonization policy for our cleaner environment, that could keep polluting the environment in DRC. Despite our reduction of flights and continuous attempts to do more virtual international conferences, your laptops and cellphones for your online communication lead to polluting drinking water of the people in DRC. Your next question might be: “So, what can I/we do?” Of course, it seems to be impossible for us to give up our dependency on cellphone or laptops at this moment.

The first and foremost thing to do is getting a sense of “shared responsibility.” The global supply chain of cobalt includes so many different stakeholders in diverse countries – female workers with their kids in DRC mining sites, Chinese or Canadian mining companies, cobalt smelters in China, big electronic companies like Apple, and the consumers of buying new Apple iPhones in the US or the EU. For that reason, any policy confined within a country is incomplete to solve this problem. We need global policies having an impact across national borders based on the value of shared responsibility among the different stakeholders (including us as a consumer).

One of the recent examples to combat this challenge is the establishment of the Responsible Cobalt Initiative (RCI) in 2016, led by CCCMC, a Chinese industry association, based on a partnership with OECD and Responsible Mineral Initiative. RCI, as a global policy platform, has been created to strengthen transnational cooperation to solve negative social and environmental impacts in the cobalt supply chain. Member companies of RCI are required to follow global standards providing best practices to companies, for example, the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals and the Chinese Due Diligence Guidelines. These guidelines emphasize a voluntary obligation of companies to report their ethical, environmental, and social impacts to stakeholders so that the transparent information disclosure binds irresponsible corporate behaviors. NGOs and consumers can be a part of the process. For instance, when a company doesn’t share an environmental assessment report proving its best practice, the brand value and reputation of the company will be damaged by a boycott movement of global consumers. In this sense, consumer pressure on companies could help RCI to operate more effectively.

Big corporations from multiple countries such as Apple, HP, Huawei, Sony, Tesla, BMW, Samsung, LG, and Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt are participating in RCI as official members. When I visited the office of RCI last summer, one of my interviewees highlighted that RCI aims to help all member companies to solve social and environmental risk issues so that their competencies to take responsibilities can be improved. Even though it is a little bit early to evaluate the actual impact of RCI, building such global networks seems to be a meaningful first step to engender a sense of shared responsibility for cleaner cobalt. A group of studies evaluates several similar types of global initiatives targeting other extractive resources as successful cases (despite some flaws). A report explains some initiatives for the global gold supply chain, such as the Chain of Custody Standard of Responsible Jewellery Council, Fairmined, and Fairtrade Gold improved local conditions in gold mines. They also encouraged retailers like Walmart or Tiffany to sell products made of ethical gold. More consumers and suppliers started recognizing that creating a responsible gold supply chain is a “right thing to do,” as well as their ethical choice influences in the profits of relevant companies and investors. We can expect similar positive effects of RCI on the cobalt supply chain.

So many countries have closed their national borders to handle the COVID-19 crisis. It can be interpreted as the end of the globalization that has flourished since the end of the Cold War. Strong nationalistic rhetoric shaped by political leaders gets supports from the global public more than ever. However, building border walls will not create a panacea. Despite some policy attempts in many countries to localize supply chains in the era of new normal after this crisis, the mutual dependence between resource-rich countries and resource-poor countries will last as long as companies keep producing your iPhones, laptops, and EVs. The value of shared responsibility and global solidarity can’t fade away if we’re to solve environmental and social issues of dirty minerals. The international community shouldn’t stop finding effective and innovative global policies to prevent all the tragic stories in cobalt mining sites in DRC.

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