The recommendations we received from IVL have already affected our procurements
Skånetrafiken, like other public transport authorities, has the ambition to electrify bus travel. But the metals in the lithium-ion batteries that will power the buses are a question mark. IVL Swedish Environmental Institute was commissioned to investigate how these conflict metals are produced and what requirements can be placed on transport companies
- IVL recommended that we make demands on a tool to increase the traceability of the critical metals that are included in the batteries. It can be an important piece of the puzzle in our work, says Iris Rehnström, responsible for environment and sustainability at Skånetrafiken.
Skånetrafiken plans to electrify more and more of its bus traffic. Being able to offer electric buses will be a requirement for the companies that compete in procurements to drive the traffic. One of the reasons is that biogas and other non-fossil fuels will not be enough when all actors in society have to change. There will be competition for energy sources.
Risk of child labor during mining
- But the main reason is to create a quiet, exhaust-free and attractive bus traffic that can compete with the car, says Iris Rehnström. As the public transport authority, Skånetrafiken wants to be at the forefront of sustainability work, and the administration was early to realize that there are downsides to electric operation.
- The batteries are a sad moment. They have a larger climate footprint as they are manufactured today. In addition, they contain metals that are mined in a way that is not always socially sustainable, there is also a risk of child labor, says Iris Rehnström.
It was in a conversation with researchers at Lund University of Technology that Iris Rehnström got the idea to put together a project to try to chart the conflict metals' path into the batteries and vehicles. She contacted Volvo who wanted to join. She involved Save the Children, who were commissioned to investigate the occurrence and effects of child labor in the event of a break-in.
An investigative journalistic work
IVL Swedish Environmental Institute's experts saw her as particularly suitable for the work of mapping the supply chain, ie how the metals travel from mine to vehicle and where the critical elements are located.
Johan Holmqvist at IVL has a background as global sustainability manager at Sony Mobile and has in-depth knowledge of international supply chains, supplier behavior and battery manufacturing. Alexandra Wu from IVL was also linked to the project thanks to her experience of analyzing supply chains.
- In addition, she knows Chinese conditions and speaks fluent Mandarin, says Iris Rehnström.
It was a slightly different assignment that IVL's experts were given. Alexandra Wu and Johan Holmqvist would use their experience and knowledge to map how critical metals for lithium-ion batteries are produced and sold, especially cobalt. Up to 60-70 percent of cobalt is mined in Congo, which is known for conflicts and violent human rights violations. The batteries themselves are then largely manufactured in Asia, primarily in China.
Here they had to go on as investigative journalists. They searched websites, read annual reports, sustainability documents and international reports on cobalt and batteries.
Alexandra Wu tells:
- It could be that I read in a business magazine that this and that company ordered so and so many buses from that and that company. There I started digging. It was a kind of investigative journalistic work and it was very engaging.
Mapping of the entire supply chain
They followed the tracks backwards and mapped six stages of suppliers; the companies that carry out the traffic, the vehicle manufacturers, the battery cell manufacturers, the companies that produce the material for the batteries, the ones that melt the minerals and finally the companies that dig out the metals.
- Often it is companies far down in the supply chain that are the critical ones. If we take Skånetrafiken, their suppliers in the first line are the transport companies whose suppliers are the vehicle manufacturers such as Volvo and their suppliers are battery manufacturers and so on, says Alexandra Wu.
What was particularly difficult, she says, was to get the companies to provide information about subcontractors, as this may be information that the companies are not happy to provide. It was important for her not to be too specific in the questions but still get the information she needed. This with conflict metals is fairly new insights and companies can sometimes act a bit dizzy.
She sees that Skånetrafiken is addressing the issue as positive.
- It is far-sighted of Skånetrafiken to start work on conflict metals. From an international perspective, I think it is very unusual. Conflict metals in particular have yet to really reach its general discussion, says Alexandra Wu.
Custom-made recommendations for Skånetrafiken
So what has the project led to so far? IVL's work culminated in a 52-page report, with recommendations tailored for Skånetrafiken. It states, among other things, that in procurements it is possible to set requirements for the traceability of these critical metals and that Skånetrafiken can take support in the OECD's guidelines on conflict metals. It is proposed that Region Skåne should demand that the transport companies they hire be included in the region's code of conduct, and that the regions should initiate cooperation with other public transport authorities and authorities to develop a common standard in the area.
Additional recommendations are about choosing cobalt-free batteries or batteries with recycled cobalt, and even there there are OECD guidelines to lean on.
- We received a number of constructive recommendations that we can move forward with. An important factor is cooperation. We need to work with other actors to pursue the issue in the long term. But the question is complex. If cobalt mining is reduced, the effect could be that vulnerable families in Congo lose their livelihoods, says Iris Rehnström.
The report came at the right time for a press conference
When it comes to the climate impact of battery manufacturing, it is very much about which energy mix is used. In Asia, a lot of coal is used and it costs a lot of energy to cool down the plants, which is necessary.
The project took place in the spring of 2019 and IVL Swedish Environmental Institute submitted its report in the autumn of 2019. Since then, several battery seminars have taken place due to what the project has come to and they have discussed how to take the work forward.
- Now in this first step, it has been about acquiring knowledge. We now plan, together with other public transport authorities, to proceed with the recommendations in the various reports, says Iris Rehnström.
For Skånetrafiken, IVL's report rarely came at the right time. At the beginning of 2020, the company held a press conference where they presented their plan to electrify traffic in Malmö. Then they got questions from the journalists about the metals in the batteries.
- Then we were very happy that we could say that we started a work there. That we do not actually ignore what is happening in other parts of the globe and that we have already woven in parts of the recommendations we have received from IVL in future procurement. It would have been very sad if we had had to duck for the questions. Now we instead got a lot of positive articles about picked up that perspective. This is an important issue that the public needs to pay attention to, says Iris Rehnström.
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