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January 19, 2023

Battery industry inches towards better sustainability with launch of passport

The Global Battery Alliance says its initiative can track the environmental and social footprint of batteries – but more work needs to be done, especially on issues such as recycling.

Batteries are at the centre of the clean energy transition. In Europe alone, at least 22 battery gigafactories are planned for the coming years, with production capacity forecast to rise from 460GWh in 2025 (enough for around 8mn battery-powered electric cars) to 730GWh in 2030, according to research by Transport and Environment, a Brussels-based non-governmental organisation.

Yet batteries require large amounts of raw materials, the mining and production of which has been problematic in terms of human and environmental exploitation. Finding ways to remove child labour and other abuses from the supply chain, track and ultimately recycle large parts of these batteries is thus vital for a sustainable transition.

At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos on Tuesday, the Global Battery Alliance unveiled its battery passport, which it said would tackle these issues. The passport works by creating a ‘digital twin’ of the physical battery, which provides detailed information that can be compared to sustainable criteria.

The digital passport is the flagship initiative of the Global Battery Alliance, whose members span the global industry from mining to recycling. They include carmakers such as Audi, Tesla and Volkswagen; mining and chemical giants such as Glencore, BASF and Umicore; and NGOs, governments and UN bodies.

A demonstration at the launch showed how swiping QR codes on Audi and Tesla cars with prototype battery passports revealed information relating to the relevant battery’s technical specifications, material provenance, and reporting against sustainability performance indicators. These included data on carbon footprint, and child labour and human rights performance.

The alliance believes the passport will make the supply chain more sustainable, and will enable customers to make more informed purchasing decisions. However, speakers at the launch said this was just the first stage and many issues still needed to be resolved – not least the complex problem of how to recycle the physical lithium batteries that power electric vehicles.

Commercial considerations

While the ability to establish the environmental and social credentials of a battery has benefits for both humans and the planet, it also helps companies differentiate themselves from the field, and instil confidence in consumers and investors.

Asked how willing the industry was to embrace yet more red tape, BASF chairman Martin Brudermüller said while companies “don’t embrace all regulations; there is good and bad regulation”, they “want to optimise the value of products” like batteries and could only do this if they “adhere to standards and are transparent with consumers”.

The battery passport would help consumers make choices and be more likely to “pay higher prices” if they can see what’s happening along the value chain, Brudermüller added. It was “not altruistic or ideological” but was about “competitiveness”, he said.

Circular economy champion Dame Ellen McArthur also spoke at the event, and suggested the battery passport was a step in moving away from a linear economy and towards building a “circular system”, which concentrates on reuse and minimises waste. However, the 2023 Circularity Gap report published on Monday by the Circle Economy – an initiative by businesses, policymakers and NGOs – showed the economy is becoming more linear, not less. According to the study, only 7.2 per cent of the 100bn tonnes of resources used globally made it back into the economy in 2022, down from 9.1 per cent in 2018.

Photo credit: Getty Images

A service from the Financial Times