Understand the human cost of cobalt

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Newswise – While driving an electric car has less of an environmental impact than gasoline-powered cars, making the parts necessary for these green technologies can have a devastating impact on human wellbeing.

After an interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Northwestern University investigated the effects of the mining of cobalt – a common component of lithium-ion batteries – on communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in Africa, an interdisciplinary team of researchers led by the Northwestern University will provide more data on how new technologies affect people’s health and livelihoods.

Such data can help decision makers, industry leaders and consumers make more socially and ethically responsible decisions about the development, financing and use of green technologies.

The case study and perspective paper will be published in the magazine on December 17th One earth.

“We have the framework and the tools to compare the environmental cost of fossil-fuel cars to battery-powered vehicles,” said Northwesterns Jennifer Dunnwho led the study. “I can tell you the greenhouse gas emissions per mile for both. But when it comes to social impact, we don’t have the same capacity for direct comparison. For many engineers, it is easier to measure or calculate environmental impacts than to understand the social conditions in a distant country that they have never set foot in before. “

Dunn is an Associate Professor of Chemical and Bioengineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and deputy director of Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience. To conduct the case study, Dunn led an interdisciplinary team of engineers, anthropologists and public health experts.

Environmental costs vs. human costs

For years, researchers have been carrying out environmental life cycle assessments (E-LCA), in which they comprehensively and systematically calculate the environmental impact of a product, from the extraction of the raw materials required for its manufacture to its use and disposal. More recently, researchers have sought to develop similar frameworks for evaluating social life cycle analyzes (S-LCA) that can be used to understand how new technologies affect human health and wellbeing.

To identify barriers and opportunities to gathering better data for S-LCA, researchers conducted field research in cobalt mining communities in Lualaba Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo. The team collected qualitative data through in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with miners and other community members. The co-author of the article Gabriel Bamana, an anthropologist on the faculty of Normandale Community College in Minnesota, is a native of the Congolese and could therefore provide an important cultural and historical context for the study.

“For this type of work it is important to work across departments to be informed,” said Sera Young, Study co-author and Associate Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “For the engineers developing the technologies, it could be difficult to understand the social implications. By working together, we can get an overall picture of the consequences of resource extraction. “

Unintended consequences of decarbonization

What Dunn and Young discovered was deeply disturbing. They found that cobalt mining was linked to an increase in violence, drug abuse, food and water insecurity, and physical and psychological problems. Parishioners reported losing common land, farmland, and homes that miners were literally digging up to extract cobalt. With no farmland, the Congolese were sometimes forced to cross international borders into Zambia just to buy groceries.

“You could think of mining as just digging something up,” said Young. “But they don’t dig in fallow land. Home is being excavated. People are literally digging holes in their living room floors. The effects of mining can affect almost every aspect of life. “

Waste from mining cobalt and other metals can pollute water, air and soil, resulting in lower crop yields, contaminated food and water, and respiratory and reproductive problems. Miners reported that working conditions were unsafe, unfair and stressful. Several workers said they feared mine shafts collapsing.

As industry leaders move towards decarbonization to slow, stop, or even reverse man-made climate change, technologies are increasingly relying on batteries instead of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the social wellbeing impact of these technologies is underestimated and insufficient data on these impacts to be used in policy making.

“If we are trying to be do-gooders by taking care of the environment, then the environment should not be limited to just the natural environment – it should also be limited to the human environment,” said Young, who is a student Water uncertaintyin a number of global contexts.

Offer new solutions

Throughout their work, Dunn, Young and their team found little-established guidance on best practices for conducting S-LCA, including little guidance on how to conduct interviews and a lack of consensus on stakeholder use and analysis of data.

“Most of this work was conceived by scientists with limited knowledge of social impact,” said Dunn. “Measuring the environmental impact of a technology is sometimes as easy as adding a sensor to measure emissions. But trying to measure intangible social impacts like mental health is much more difficult. “

“And things that aren’t measured are invisible,” added Young.

Since the quality of the social impact assessment depends on the quality of the data, the researchers identified five categories of data sources that can be used to better understand the localized impacts of mining: (1) interviews and focus groups of affected community members; (2) local public records, including legal claims related to land, documentation of forced migration, and publicly available health records; (3) cross-cultural validated scales, including data collected by national statistical authorities and organizations such as UNICEF and the World Bank; (4) data collected for the Sustainable Development Goals; and (5) remote sensing and imagery, including satellite imagery, showing how farmland has changed after cobalt mining began.

The researchers believe such methods can be applied to other scenarios beyond cobalt mining to collect social data on emerging technologies.

“We still have a long way to go before we can present the S-LCA results to decision makers in the same way as the E-LCA results,” said Dunn. “In the meantime, our society is going through tremendous changes, including climate change, so we feel a sense of urgency. We hope policymakers will see the urgency of the human cost of cobalt mining sooner rather than later. “

Addressing the social life cycle analysis data gap: Insights from a case study of cobalt Mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was supported by Leslie and Mac McQuown, the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems, and Carnegie Corporation.


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