EV industry hungers for cobalt mined in DR Congo: “Here it is better not to be born”

5. april kl. 15:33
Koboltmine i Den Demokratiske Republik Congo
An industrial mine where thousands of workers crowd to dig up cobalt with their bare hands. Illustration: Siddharth Kara.
The imbalance between demand and supply of cobalt will become greater in the future and will worsen conditions for people in DR Congo.
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In the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the heart of Africa, a young woman stands in a small lake and sifts through mud with a plastic bowl. 

After 12 hours of hard work, she can fill her sack with 50 kilogrammes of sand containing cobalt, she says.

A kilometre away, she sells it for around five Danish crowns before returning to her small hut, in which she lives alone. 

She is left without a family after her husband, who was digging for cobalt in one of the so-called “artisanal” mines, died of a respiratory disease.

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They had tried several times to have children, but Priscille, as the young woman is called, miscarried twice.

“I thank God for taking my babies,” she says.

“Here it is better not to be born.”

This is how Siddharth Kara, who researches modern-day slavery and, among other things, has taught at Berkeley and Harvard, describes one of many meetings with the people who work in and around DR Congo’s cobalt mines.

Since 2018, he has taken several trips to the two south-eastern mining provinces, Haut-Katanga and Lualaba, where 60–75 percent of all the world’s cobalt is extracted from the ground. 

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This often takes place under miserable conditions in artisanal mines, where adults and children risk their lives by crawling through narrow tunnels up to 70 meters below the Earth’s surface.

It’s a maddening race to get cobalt out of the ground in every imaginable way as quickly as possible, Siddharth Kara says.

The world’s largest children’s organisation, UNICEF, estimated in 2014 that 40,000 children worked in DR Congo’s cobalt mines. 

Research results show that skin and respiratory diseases, cancer, heavy metal poisoning, and a large number of other diseases are particularly widespread among the workers.

All things considered, Siddharth Kara does not imagine that conditions will change in the coming years for the poor workers in DR Congo’s cobalt mining areas, whom he says are some of the most exploited and most degraded people in the world.

On the contrary.

The EV industry consumes the most cobalt

The world hungers for cobalt, which is used in around 70 percent of all rechargeable batteries on the market. 

In DR Congo alone, production has been increasing exponentially by around 20 percent per year. 

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The energy think-tank IEA estimates that the world’s total consumption of cobalt will almost double by 2030, while the World Bank predicts an increase of over 450 percent in 2050

However, consumption is increasing faster than production.

According to Siddharth Kara, this will put enormous pressure on increasing production in DR Congo, which has greater reserves of the limited resource than all other countries in the world combined.

And that, all else being equal, will mean more child workers, more disease and destruction, he explains.

He says that the increasing demand will result in a greater spread of the dangerous artisanal mines, and the imbalance between supply and demand will only worsen in the coming years, primarily driven by the demand for electric cars.

Nothing can replace cobalt

A single electric car’s battery pack contains up to 15 kilogrammes of cobalt. 

This already adds up to many tonnes—and it will be even more in the future, as electric cars roll out of the factories at an accelerating pace. 

In 2021, the EV industry became the largest consumer of cobalt, and overall, that year it consumed around 34 percent of the world’s total production of just over 170,000 tonnes, according to a calculation from the trade association Cobalt Institute.

The EV industry accounts for such a large share because cobalt provides a number of desirable properties, explains Dorthe Ravnsbæk, professor of materials chemistry at the Department of Chemistry at Aarhus University.

“Cobalt makes it possible to store a lot of energy in a small space and at low weight. It gives the battery stability and a long lifetime with the possibility of charging and discharging many times. No other element can do the same as cobalt,” she says.

The biggest competitor to cobalt-containing batteries on the market today are known as LFP batteries, which are based on lithium, iron, and phosphate. Although they are typically cheaper than the usual NMC (nickel, manganese, and cobalt) batteries, they have certain limitations.

This can be seen at Tesla. 

For five years, the EV giant has had a goal of getting rid of cobalt and last year, Tesla announced that half of its cars, Model 3 and Y, had LFP batteries. However, models with a longer range could not do without cobalt, the EV giant explained.

And the LFP batteries will never deliver as long a range as the cobalt-based ones simply because of the lower energy density, Dorthe Ravnsbæk explains and points out that there are other, cobalt-free battery technologies on the way, but that they are still a few years away from being commercially available.

And since EV sales are expected to increase sharply, it also seems that the electric car industry will continue to use more and more cobalt. While in 2022, 10.5 million new electric cars and plug-in hybrids were sold (an increase of 55 percent compared to 2021), the IEA expects the number to already get to around 45 million in 2030.

Tesla and other cobalt consumers are not trying to avoid cobalt just due to the slavery-like conditions in DR Congo. The silvery metal is an incredibly scarce resource, which is slowly and steadily being depleted, which will also mean huge price increases in the future, Dorthe Ravnsbæk explains.

“It may well be that we will have to adjust to the fact that our cars simply have a shorter range, because we have to use some other batteries that do not exhaust Earth’s resources and that do not require someone to work in miserable conditions elsewhere in the world,” she says.

Movia’s cobalt-powered buses

Despite the conditions, the human rights organization Amnesty International does not recommend that either companies or private consumers boycott cobalt from DR Congo. It is an important source of income for the people of Haut-Katanga and Lualaba. 

But due to the many levels of mine owners, intermediate suppliers, processing companies, and so on, it is difficult to avoid, for example, child labour.

Danish traffic company Movia is well aware of the problems and conditions in DR Congo. 

“Yes, we are focused on the subject,” contract manager at Movia Jeppe Gaard writes in an email and adds that 55 out of 339 electric buses have an NMC battery with nickel, manganese, and cobalt, while 284 run on LFP batteries with no or low cobalt content.

In Movia’s experience, electric buses with LFP batteries have just as long a range as buses with NMC batteries, he explains and further states that it is ultimately not up to Movia to choose electric buses with or without cobalt.

“It is Movia’s operators who decide which buses they offer to carry out the bus operation, including the choice of battery technology. But in our most recently initiated tender, we give an advantage in technical evaluation to operators who indicate a focus on the entire life cycle perspective of the bus,” he writes in the email.

This “advantage in technical evaluation” can be obtained by answering a questionnaire that Movia has developed together with a number of other Nordic transport companies to assess the buses’ environmental and climate impacts in a life cycle perspective—from raw material extraction to production and disposal.

One of the questions, which is only relevant if the electric bus’s battery contains cobalt, reads: “Please indicate which measures are used to reduce the use of cobalt extracted through child labour”. 

In addition, an answer must be given as to whether the bus manufacturer has carried out “due diligence” within the past year, in accordance with the OECD’s “Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas”.

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