Mercedes tackles cobalt mining issues
Sets standards to ensure responsible battery metals sources Metal Tech News – Nov. 18, 2020
Last updated 4/16/2023 at 7:15am
Mercedes-Benz says it will follow its supply chains all the way back to the mines, if that is what it takes to ensure that the lithium and cobalt going into its rapidly expanding line of electric vehicles is produced with high environmental and human rights standards.
"Our aspiration is very clear – we want our products to contain only raw materials that have been mined and produced without human rights violations," said Renata Jungo Brüngger, a board member of both Mercedes-Benz and Daimler AG, responsible for integrity and legal affairs.
"If there are any indications of risk, we take another, closer look at the supply chain. This involves us going beyond the direct suppliers and creating transparency – if necessary, all the way back to the mine," Brüngger added.
This focus on battery metals is an offshoot of Mercedes' Ambition 2039, a holistic strategy to become a carbon neutral automaker by expanding its EV lineup and tackling the automotive value chain – from technical development to the extraction of raw materials, production, service life, and recycling.
Under its Ambition 2039 strategy, the German automaker expects fully electric and hybrid EVs to make up half of its sales by 2030 and its fleet to be completely carbon-neutral by 2039.
Based on current lithium-ion battery chemistries, this means the company will need a lot more cobalt, a key ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries that power EVS.
The mining of cobalt has been highly criticized due to the unsafe working conditions and human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo as men, women, and children hand-dig down into some of the richest sources of cobalt on Earth.
It is estimated that artisanal mines are the source of 10 to 20% of the cobalt coming out of DRC, a country that accounts for more than 70% of the world's supply of this battery metal.
This creates a dilemma for EV and green energy companies that need cobalt for their batteries but do not want to be seen as contributing to the endangerment of children in an effort to lessen mankind's carbon footprint.
While human rights organizations do not want to see children and others forced to work in unsafe mines, they are increasingly imploring global cobalt suppliers to support improving the conditions in these small hand mining operations that provide a vital source of income for people willing to put themselves and families at risk to dig up enough of this important metal to survive.
Following recommendations from these nongovernmental organizations, as well as governments and others, Mercedes said high-risk countries such as DRC will not be categorically excluded from its cobalt supply chains. Instead, the German automaker is leveraging its power as a large buyer of cobalt and other metals to improve the economic situation for the people mining cobalt while also ensuring that higher human rights standards are established.
To help ensure that the cobalt going into the supply chain that ultimately ends up in its EVs is sourced responsibly, Mercedes is pushing for wider adoption of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance's Standard for Responsible Mining. These standards define responsible mining practices and provide independent auditors with a list of expectations that serve as benchmarks for responsible mines.
"We have had the supply chains for our Mercedes-Benz electric vehicle fleet audited in line with OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) guidance, all the way back to the mine, even though we don't source cobalt directly ourselves," said Mercedes-Benz Cars COO Markus Schäfer. "Based on the insights gained, we will instruct our battery suppliers to only source cobalt and lithium from certified mining sites in the future."
"With this, we even go a step further and will ensure our sourcing is from mining sites compliant with the mining standard of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance," he added. "This way, in addition to child labor and a range of other social concerns, environmental risks in the mining of raw materials can also be minimized. By doing so, we are paving the way for clean raw materials, from which other participants in the market can also benefit."
Currently, however, there are no cobalt miners certified in accordance with IRMA's Standard for Responsible Mining, according to a thorough audit of cobalt supply chains behind battery cells completed by RCS Global and commissioned by Mercedes in 2018.
To tackle this problem, the German automaker is working with IRMA and RCS Global on a step-by-step approach to deal with the particularly challenging cobalt mining situations in DRC.
This effort will be being carried out alongside other initiatives such as the Fair Cobalt Alliance, aimed at improving the economic and human rights situation for artisanal cobalt miners in DRC.
Fair Cobalt Alliance – which boasts Glencore, Volvo, and Tesla among its members – sees poverty as the crux of the problems associated with artisanal cobalt mining in DRC.
"The need to generate income drives miners to take continually greater safety risks at the mines and the temptation for children to contribute earnings to their families' incomes from participating in the workforce," the group aimed at breaking the poverty cycle for small scale miners wrote.
More information about the Fair Cobalt Alliance and Tesla's participation can be read at Tesla empowers artisanal cobalt miners in the Sept. 9 edition of Metal Tech News.
Toward similar goals, Mercedes is taking a step-by-step approach to improving cobalt mining practices at the front of its supply chain.
In the medium term, this approach aims to formulate realistic expectations of cobalt and lithium miners, while pressing for increasingly responsible practices in order to meet Daimler's requirements for sustainable supply chains. In the longer term, the company is seeking commitment to a process of continuous improvement. This includes transitional periods for the achievement of different levels of performance for an IRMA certification.
"Going forward, we will only work with suppliers who agree to comply with these requirements," said Schäfer.
Mercedes is also looking to develop batteries that need less cobalt and other critical materials, store more energy, and charge faster.
"In the future, we want to use post-lithium-ion technologies with new material compositions to completely dispense with materials such as cobalt. The further optimization of recyclability and its implementation at Mercedes-Benz is also part of the holistic battery strategy," says Schäfer.