28 October 2021

Call to Action: Putting People at the Heart of the Decarbonization of Transportation

By Anna Triponel, Susannah McLaren and Tom Fairlie

The COP26 Summit in Glasgow is upon us: it needs to be a turning point for meaningful action on climate change. The Paris Agreement, resulting from the COP21 Summit in Paris, provided us with an international consensus around a framework for decarbonization, while stating clearly the need to take into account the imperatives of a just transition. Now is the time for us all – governments, businesses and civil society – to commit to meaningful action in alignment with the Paris Agreement, while implementing a just transition that brings all potentially affected stakeholders along. In the words of US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, Glasgow is the “last best hope for the world to get its act together”.

We all have a role to play – governments, businesses and civil society – to act collectively and inclusively to address the climate crisis. While all sectors need to step up in different ways, we recognize the significant role that the cobalt industry plays in securing a just transition.

In the first of the four goals set for COP26 related to “secur[ing] global net zero by mid-century and keep[ing] 1.5 degrees within reach”, one of the key actions identified for countries to be able to deliver on their emissions reductions targets is to “speed up the switch to electric vehicles.” We are already seeing a rapid increase in the demand for batteries – with global demand set to increase 14 fold by 2030.

This supply of electric vehicle batteries cannot happen without cobalt, a critical component in lithium-ion batteries –  as well as a fundamental material for the future of buildings, packaging, and renewable energy. Cobalt provides durability and high energy density, leading to vehicles that will last longer and drive further. Cobalt also helps recycling of batteries to be economically viable at the end of their life, further supporting the transition to the circular economy – a central tenet of the European Green Deal.

Decarbonizing transportation through electrification is absolutely necessary to reach net zero by 2050. The sourcing of cobalt also brings a range of benefits to those involved, such as economic opportunities, skills and improved livelihoods. At the same time, we must not lose sight of the potential adverse impacts to people associated with minerals like cobalt. We need to consider, engage with and mitigate impacts on those who could be adversely impacted by the transition to a green economy – be they workers, contractors, community members, or other stakeholder groups.

Over 65% of global production comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people work in the cobalt artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) sector – often associated with hazardous working conditions, unfair trading practices and, in certain instances, child labor – and many more depend on this income for their livelihoods. This underscores the need for the creation of multi-stakeholder initiatives – such as the Fair Cobalt Alliance and the Global Battery Alliance’s Cobalt Action Partnership – to address the root causes of human rights and environmental challenges that arise. Taking a full value chain perspective, there are other impacts that need to be considered as well – ranging from working practices in refining and chemical manufacturing sites, to impacts that arise in logistics, recycling and disposal, and that may arise in the future as the way in which cobalt is extracted and produced evolves.

Mindful of our leverage as a global industry association representing an estimated 75% of the global cobalt market, the Cobalt Institute is actively seeking to integrate a people-centered approach into our efforts and to support the cobalt value chain to be better equipped on its environmental and human rights due diligence journey.

However, the transition to new transport modes that are just, fair, inclusive and rights-respecting cannot happen without a range of other stakeholders also stepping up to the challenge. As the fourth COP26 goal states, “We can only rise to the challenges of the climate crisis by working together.” This includes ensuring that emissions reductions targets are firmly built on just transition principles. It translates into a just transition that extends beyond workers to encompass community members, with prioritization provided to the most at-risk groups vulnerable to adverse impacts. And it includes ensuring environmental policy-making integrates human rights considerations, in alignment with the expectations contained in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

As we take the necessary strides to decarbonize transportation, this must not come at the expense of human rights. The cobalt sector is taking steps to address human rights and the environment in an integrated manner, and we call on governments and other relevant stakeholders to do the same.

Susannah McLaren is Head of Responsible Sourcing & Sustainability at the Cobalt Institute, and Tom Fairlie is Sustainability Manager. Anna Triponel is a business and human rights expert supporting the Cobalt Institute to integrate the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into its work within the cobalt sector.

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