Cobalt is considered a key metal in the energy transition, and demand is expected to increase substantially by 2050. This demand is for an important part because of cobalt use in (electric vehicle) batteries. This study investigated the environmental impacts of the production of cobalt and how these could change in the future. We modeled possible future developments in the cobalt supply chain using four variables: (v1) ore grade, (v2) primary market shares, (v3) secondary market shares, and (v4) energy transition. These variables are driven by two metal-demand scenarios, which we derived from scenarios from the shared socioeconomic pathways, a “business as usual” (BAU) and a “sustainable development” (SD) scenario. We estimated future environmental impacts of cobalt supply by 2050 under these two scenarios using prospective life cycle assessment. We found that the environmental impacts of cobalt production could likely increase and are strongly dependent on the recycling market share and the overall energy transition. The results showed that under the BAU scenario, climate change impacts per unit of cobalt production could increase by 9% by 2050 compared to 2010, while they decreased by 28% under the SD scenario. This comes at a trade-off to other impacts like human toxicity, which could strongly increase in the SD scenario (112% increase) compared to the BAU scenario (71% increase). Furthermore, we found that the energy transition could offset most of the increase of climate change impacts induced by a near doubling in cobalt demand in 2050 between the two scenarios.
- energy transition
- future background scenario
- industrial ecology
- prospective life cycle assessment