The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Ugly of Cobalt Mining

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The good, bad, and the ugly of cobalt mining
Close-up of prismatic cobalt blue geode crystals By JennarationX

Cobalt mining is a crucial part of the supply chain for electric vehicles (EVs). The metal is vitally important in the production of lithium-ion batteries. However, there are serious concerns about cobalt mining and the region from which it comes. Amnesty International’s found the use of slave labor in the mining of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is one of the largest metal producers. 

Here, we’ll look at the many issues surrounding cobalt mining and its dramatic impact on how the EV industry sources metals like cobalt.

What Is Cobalt?

Cobalt is a naturally occurring element found in the Earth’s crust. Though widely dispersed across the globe, it makes up just one-one thousandth of a percent of the Earth’s crust. It is used in various industrial and technological applications, including the production of lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are employed in multiple high-demand products, including EVs, smartphones, and laptops. 

Due to the growth of the EV market, the demand for cobalt is expected to significantly increase. Cobalt ensures that the battery’s cathodes don’t overheat or catch fire while driving. No Tesla owner wants to see their luxury vehicle go up in flames mid-commute. Thus, cobalt is essential to the end consumer as well.

However, Not All That Glitters is Cobalt.

The DRC is home to some of the world’s largest cobalt mines and is responsible for more than 60% of the global metal supply. The Southern Congo has approximately 3.4 million metric tons of cobalt, making it as much as half of the world’s known supply. However, the mining industry in the DRC is plagued by many problems. This includes corruption, lack of regulation, and widespread instances of human rights abuses. One of the most serious issues is the use of child labor and forced labor in the mines. 

According to a report by Amnesty International, “This is What We Die For,” child labor is prevalent in the DRC’s cobalt mines. There are children as young as seven working in dangerous conditions for long hours. BBC published serious allegations against Apple, Samsung, and Sony back in 2016 for child labor violations in relation to cobalt. In addition, the report found that some children were working in mines to pay off family debts. This places the children in positions of indentured servitude. Aside from the harsh and physically extreme nature of manual labor in central Africa, chronic exposure to cobalt dust can lead to severe lung disease. 

Using slave labor in cobalt mining violates the essential human rights of these workers. It strips them of their humanity, a means to provide a meaningful livelihood and knowing any pursuit of happiness at even the most elemental levels. 

Such unfettered oppression undermines the EV industry’s ability to broadcast that it upholds high ethical principles. Further, the use of cobalt from mines that use child or forced labor is not limited to the DRC. The Amnesty report finds that this also occurs in other countries like China and Russia. Therefore, as consumer demand for lithium-ion batteries increases, so does this global threat.

ESG Alarm Bells Should Be Blaring

Increased environmental, social, and governance (ESG) expectations put more companies under the microscope for how their operations measure up. Highly-regarded investor rating service, Morningstar, even now provides an ESG rating for companies, in response to the growing sentiment for ESG investing.

With so many eyes on environmental and social injustices both in government and corporate America, the EV industry is facing mounting pressure for ensuring that the cobalt used in their products is not mined using slave labor. If they fail to do so, they seem like a complacent participant. 

However, one cannot argue that geo-political strife in the Central African region is anything but a complex miasma. There lies a fragile peace between warring groups across the fractured Republic of Congo (ROC). It’s important to note that the ROC is an entirely different entity from its neighbor, the cobalt-rich Democratic Republic of Congo, (DRC). Therefore, the issue of the supply chain of cobalt is often opaque. Thus, there is no way easy to trace the precise origin of the metal as it changes hands. 

Moreover, many EV stakeholders and end-market consumers simply need to be made aware of the source of the cobalt used in their vehicles and other tech products. 

Making Ethical Cobalt Mining a Consistent Reality

The ray of sunshine in this otherwise bleak narrative is that several initiatives have been launched to promote ethical cobalt mining to help address this issue. The Responsible Cobalt Initiative, for example, aims to improve working conditions in the DRC’s cobalt mines. They serve to ensure that the cobalt used in EVs is ethically sourced. 

The initiative is supported by many of the major players in the EV boom, including BMW, Ford, and Volkswagen. Other ways of tackling the issue include the Cobalt Blockchain Initiative and the Responsible Minerals Initiative. These two entities aim to promote responsible mining practices and trace cobalt’s origin and other minerals.

The Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, has also added $100 million to the Adaptation Fund and $150 million to the President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (PREPARE) program in Africa.

These initiatives focus on the continent as a whole, but should produce a benefit, with efforts ranging from two new climate study facilities to bolstering risk-based insurance on the continent. Of note, these efforts are in addition to the $20 million already pledged to PREPARE. Further, the Administration also plans to use public finance to garner additional “billions in private investment” across Africa. All of which could be argued should produce some ancillary benefit to the stability needed to mine and export cobalt ethically and sustainably.

Working Towards A Better Tomorrow

The use of slave labor in cobalt mining is a serious issue that the EV industry must address. The industry has a responsibility to ensure that the cobalt used in its products is ethically sourced. Similarly, the workers’ rights are also respected. Consumers, too, cannot turn a blind eye to the oppression that went into producing a major component of the car they drive or phone they use.

While there are initiatives to promote ethical cobalt mining, more must be done to address the problem. We need to ensure that EV stakeholders are not complicit in human rights abuses. Progress can be achieved through greater transparency in the supply chain. This goes along with developing the infrastructure required to trace cobalt and other minerals’ origin accurately.

The EV concept itself is one of a “green future”. A future where the Earth is less polluted, and less in climate-crisis mode 24/7. That future is a hope, and perhaps that hope is even better than the reality. The reality is that it will take a global, truly unified effort to make a change. 

Author Tyler Reed

Author Bio

Tyler Reed began his career in the world of finance managing a portfolio of municipal bonds at the Bank of New York Mellon. Four years later, he led the Marketing and Business Development team at a high-profile civil engineering firm. He had a focus on energy development in federal, state, and local pursuits. He picked up an Executive MBA from the University of Florida along the way. Following an entrepreneurial spirit, he founded a content writing agency. There, they service marketing agencies, PR firms, and enterprise accounts on a global scale. A sought-after television personality and featured writer in too many leading publications to list, his penchant for research delivers crisp and intelligent prose his audience continually craves.

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