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Striving for digital sustainability and reduced inequalities in EV battery production

In today’s world, we face a monumental challenge. How do we unite the initiatives of sustainability and digital transformation to build a world that works better for everyone? This challenge resurfaced time and again throughout our participation at Vision 2045, a leadership summit that happened alongside COP26 last year.

As we continue to work in alignment with the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we’re excited by recent innovations that aim to reduce inequalities by bridging sustainability and digital transformation. Specifically, in the electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing industry. Tech leaders are striving to overcome the range of environmental and humanitarian issues that exist because of the reliance on cobalt mining for EV batteries.

Here, we take a look at the context, the solutions and the ways in which sustainable digital transformation is changing and can continue to change the way the world works for the better.

Child miners and EVs: Inequality in the Congo

Most of the world is coming together to try to eliminate coal as a source of energy and reduce carbon emissions. A similar movement is happening in the so-called electric revolution, as more and more companies and drivers are moving towards battery-powered electric vehicles. In 2010, there were fewer than 20,000 EVs on the road, but that number had risen to more than 7.2 million in 2019 and is estimated to rise to 250 million by 2030.

However, the ‘dirty secret’ of EVs lies in the batteries themselves—or, rather, the way in which their materials are sourced. Most of the world’s cobalt is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In a similar fashion to the UK-based coal deposits that jump-started the industrial revolution, the cobalt needed for EV batteries is found just metres below the surface, so mining is relatively accessible. Another, more disturbing, similarity to that era is that children are exploited to do said mining.

In total, 70% of the world's cobalt supply is mined in the Congo. The majority of the Congo’s cobalt might well come from large mining sites at which heavy machinery is used, but the rapid price increase driven by EV demand has caused an explosion in the number of informal miners who dig cobalt by hand (thought by some to outnumber actual miners by 15:1). This unregulated practice is drawing in children, who now account for up to 30% of the cobalt mined in the Congo.

These practises, of course, present a significant problem for the EV manufacturing industry in relation to the UN’s SDGs; not only does it lead to irresponsible production, but it also exploits a vulnerable group of Congolese people who should not be engaged in such dangerous work.

Thankfully, there are tech innovations that are slowly guiding the industry out of the darkness and towards a more sustainable approach to EV production.

How is sustainable digital transformation helping?

The fact of the matter is that EV batteries don’t actually need cobalt to work, so innovators are striving to eradicate the use of cobalt or, at least, reduce reliance upon it across the industry. GM, for instance, developed a battery that uses 70% less cobalt and leverages aluminum instead, increasing energy capacity to the welcoming tune of 60%. In addition, both Panasonic and Nissan have pledged 0% cobalt batteries by the mid-2020s, with the former already boasting <5% cobalt in its batteries today.

This direction is extremely encouraging when it comes to the reduction of inequalities for people and the industry’s negative impact on the environment. There’s no denying that the electrification of our vehicles must continue if we are to protect the future of our planet, but the exploitation of children must not. The fact that technology is enabling and accelerating change is most certainly taking us in the right direction here.

This level of innovation is the perfect example of how sustainability and digital transformation can be combined as a unified agenda for the benefit of people, planet and profit.

Championing digital sustainability

It’s Kin + Carta’s aim to show that investing in digital sustainability is the way forward for us all. The poorer and less institutionally represented countries of the world are fighting more inequality than most and, when you look at these figures, the transportation sector is partly to blame for that in the Congo in particular.

The difference between the coal-driven industrial revolution and today’s electric revolution is that we can use advanced technology and global collaboration to our advantage. We must use the modern tools at our disposal to prevent unnecessary harm to both humans and the planet on our path to achieving the UN’s SDGs.

Our part in this global effort is exemplified in the fact that we recently became the first B Corp on the London Stock Exchange—a serious demonstration of our commitment to protecting our people and our planet, not just our profit. We’re open-sourcing the work we did to get there, too, so we can actively help other businesses follow in our footsteps and focus on a set of unifying global objectives.

We saw this desire for collaboration and innovation at both Vision 2045 and COP26 recently, so it’s fantastic to see such sustainable digital transformation being actioned in the real world to drive us forward as one.

If you have a vision for digital sustainability, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch today to discuss how we can work together to bring that vision to life.

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