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Tracking and quantifying the cobalt flows in mainland China during 1994–2016: Insights into use, trade and prospective demand

Chen, Zhenyang, Zhang, Lingen, Xu, Zhenming
The Science of the total environment 2019 v.672 pp. 752-762
batteries, clean energy, cobalt, raw materials, recycling, sustainable development, trade, China
In recent years, the demand for cobalt is increasing dramatically because of its critical role in clean energy technologies globally. China has been a leading consumer and refiner of cobalt, and meanwhile is a scarce country of cobalt resources. Its growing domestic demand may impose significant pressure on sustainable development of cobalt resources and make it potentially vulnerable to supply shortages. Aiming at identifying the potential opportunities for improving cobalt resource efficiency and supply security, dynamic stocks and flows analysis was applied to track and quantify the anthropogenic cobalt cycles in mainland China such as its production, use, and trade over the years 1994–2016. The analysis results showed that the production, trade and consumption of cobalt resources in mainland China grew significantly in the past two decades. China has been a net importer of cobalt raw materials but a net exporter of cobalt chemicals and final cobalt-containing products, indicating that China is bearing increasing environmental burden of processing cobalt product for other economies. The in-use stock of cobalt has reached over 140,000 t by 2016, of which the cobalt contained in in-use batteries accounted for approximately 77%. The recycling rate of end-of-life (Eol) products kept at a very low level, less than 20% in the past decades. The cumulative domestic demand of cobalt is projected to exceed China's reserve base by around 2022 based on scenario analysis. Furthermore, some recommendations were proposed for the sustainable development of China's cobalt resource, including the improvement of national cobalt reserve system, development of diversified resource supply channel and the establishment of a recycling system and associated regulations for cobalt-containing obsolete products.