COMMENT:

Now that more than 80 per cent of our energy in New Zealand comes from renewable sources, adopting electric cars makes a lot of sense.

Battery technology, however, is expensive business and the high cost of key metals is driving unethical business practices in the mining industry.

While the movie Blood Diamond helped to highlight how money from diamond mining industries fuelled civil wars, perhaps the term blood cobalt might be needed to bring to light the growing evidence of child labour issues in one of the key materials for our tech industry.

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The previous National government had a goal of reaching 64,000 electric vehicles on the road by the end of 2021. With current electric vehicle numbers at just over 13,000 the target now seems unlikely as about 500 new electric vehicles are registered on New Zealand roads each month.

The major consideration for many when it comes to buying a car is cost - which makes purchasing an electric vehicle challenging. Battery technology is expensive because they need to be able to hold massive amounts of charge to cover large distances before being plugged in again. One of the key materials that makes this possible is a silvery metal called cobalt.

Due to its high temperature and corrosion resistance, cobalt is widely used in the aerospace industry to make superalloys for jet engines and its magnetic properties make it great as a medical tracer and cancer treatment through radiotherapy.

Cobalt is also used in the cathodes of lithium-ion batteries and plays a crucial role by stabilising the cathode structure in the battery cell allowing them to be charged and discharged at high rates without overheating or generating large amounts of the flammable gas oxygen.

Many of your tech devices contain cobalt, your smartphone and laptop for example will use a couple of grams of the metal, but a single electric or hybrid vehicle requires between five and 12kg of cobalt.

As there is currently no commercially viable alternative for the material, the price of cobalt has almost tripled since 2013 making mining for it much more attractive. The challenge is that 60 per cent of the worlds cobalt comes from one of the most politically unstable countries in the world – the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is ranked near the bottom of the UN's Human Development Index and the NGO Transparency International anti-corruption index. Many Congolese have no running water or electricity at home.

With the increasing need for cobalt to fuel our growing demand for electric vehicles and the increased value of the metal giving rise to jobs for an estimated 200,000 people in one of the poorest countries, the benefits seem to be positive for a country desperately in need of funds.

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Sadly, mining cobalt isn't easy and artisanal mines are used where the cobalt is dug out by hand in unregulated conditions with a growing number of reports documenting the use of child workers.

In 2016, Amnesty international released a report naming more than two dozen electronics and automotive companies that failed to ensure that their cobalt supply chains were from ethically well managed mines.

As countries, like Denmark, bring in bans on the sale of new cars with internal combustion engines, the demand for cobalt filled electric vehicles will increase almost as quickly as electric cars can accelerate.

In the same way that the public put pressure on the garment industry's child sweatshops and the jewellery industry's blood diamonds, perhaps it's time to start shining the light on the electric vehicle industry to ensure they prove their use of ethically sourced cobalt.