Cobalt: the element powering the green transition
The shift towards clean energy is transforming the way we power our world, moving away from fossil fuels to embrace new sources. Among these, metals and minerals are taking center stage, playing a crucial role in decarbonizing industries, particularly through the use of clean energies and electric vehicles. One of the most notable metals in this context is cobalt.
Both the European Union and the United States have designated cobalt as a Critical Raw Material, recognizing its importance. Cobalt's energy storage capacity, hardness, and temperature resilience make it a vital technology-enabling metal. It is an integral part of circuits, semiconductors, computers, phones, and it even finds applications in medicine for imaging, cancer radiotherapy and sterilizing medical equipment.
Cobalt's significance extends to the heart of our digital world, powering rechargeable batteries in smartphones and laptops, as well as the lithium-ion batteries crucial for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage. Projections indicate a substantial 60% increase in global demand for cobalt by 2025, with batteries accounting for over half of this surge.
The amount of cobalt in different devices varies. (Credit: RAID UK; https://www.raid-uk.org)
As we move towards the decarbonization of transportation, the demand for energy storage and rechargeable batteries is increasing exponentially, with the aim of achieving zero emissions. Governments worldwide have outlined strategies to decarbonize the global economy in the fight against climate change, and one of the strategies is to ban the sale of internal combustion engines, such as those used in diesel and petrol cars. This is set to happen in many cases as early as 2030.
The European Green Deal, central to the endeavor, aligns economic growth with environmental sustainability, pledging to achieve no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. This and many other considerations have encouraged car manufacturers to take the decision to transform their entire fleets to electric in the future, including fuel cell technology.
Anticipating an unprecedented surge in green mobility, an intensified demand for cobalt can be foreseen. Global powers such as China, the European Union and the United States are competing to overcome supply chain constraints in an industry that is likely to be a determinant in national security and economic leadership in coming years.
Cobalt Mining in Congo
In this fight for control of resources, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is home to half of the world’s known cobalt resources and currently accounts for around 70% of global production. It is a country with weak internal governance and regional factionalism. This is the troubled arena in which the geopolitical conflict over cobalt is playing out.
Its resources have long fueled the world’s industrialization and major world wars, from timber and rubber during the era of King Leopold II to uranium for the development of atomic bombs and currently to cobalt for the technologies of our modern world.
The DRC, despite its abundant mineral resources like gold and tantalum, continues to struggle with widespread poverty and the recent displacement of 6.9 million people due to increasing violence. At the heart of the DRC's turmoil is the industrial mining of cobalt and copper. This surge in mining, while profitable for the global technology and automotive sectors, has precipitated severe human rights abuses. Reports by Amnesty International and local entities document forced evictions, sexual assaults, arson, and beatings related to the expansion of multinational mining companies.
The complexities inherent in the DRC's situation go beyond the immediate harm to its local communities. International corporate organizations and the global tech industry reap benefits from the DRC's mineral riches, while the local people endure the consequences of environmental harm and social injustice. This scenario underscores a critical ethical dilemma: the quest for technological progress and sustainable energy at the expense of human rights and ecological integrity. The global community is thus confronted with the challenge of ensuring that the shift towards greener energy does not continue the legacy of exploitation. This predicament calls for strict regulatory measures and ethical mining practices, especially in vulnerable areas like the DRC.
Junior Kannah/AFP via Getty Images
What Is Artisanal Mining And Why Does It Matter for the Renewable Energy Transition?
The majority of the cobalt that is extracted is actually a by-product of existing copper mines. The other main source in the DRC is represented by “artisanal” mining, which accounts for up to 15% of the global cobalt supply.
Leading global sources of cobalt production
Given that artisanal miners in the DRC are currently producing more than Russia – the world’s second largest producer – the role that they play and the conditions under which they operate are important to understand. Artisanal miners hand-dig higher-grade ores than those extracted through industrial or mechanized production means. But there are well-reported problems with artisanal mining, both in terms of the social and environmental cost.
The small mines in which artisanal miners operate are often dangerous and polluting. The mining and refining processes are often labor intensive and associated with a variety of health problems as a result of accidents, overexertion, exposure to toxic chemicals and gases, and violence. And these miners, known locally as creseurs, are so economically reliant on this informal economy that these dangerous conditions cannot afford full consideration.
The quest for Congo’s cobalt has demonstrated how the clean energy revolution, meant to save the planet from perilously warming temperatures, is caught in a familiar cycle of environmental degradation, exploitation, and greed.
The European Union has published some initiatives, like the Critical Raw Materials Act, which aim towards the diversification of supply chains and the employment of environmental and social standards within the extraction practices of critical raw materials. This could in the long run have a positive impact on the critical situation experienced by Congolese workers. Still, some argue that, while helpful, European regulation isn’t going to be the element that puts an end to Congolese exploitation, as the Union itself is playing a part, willingly or not, in this process.
The most obvious solution to break this cycle and halt the negative impacts of cobalt mining is to stop mining the metal altogether. However, this is impossible in a society that relies on cobalt to function.
The next best solution is reducing the demand for cobalt in the lithium-ion batteries found in electric devices. This could be through borrowing electric items, donating your unwanted electric goods to be recycled or repaired and redistributed to charities, and learning how to repair broken electronics.
All the above focus on e-waste recycling, which will in turn help meet the rising demand for cobalt and stem the environmental degradation and social pressures the mining brings.
It is a well-known fact that the ‘first world’ would not exist without a ‘third world’, and the main economic actors are well aware of this. It is in their best interest to defend an international free trade system that unfortunately resembles the times of colonialism. It is hard to determine whether the failure of some former colonies to establish a democratic State derives from their inability to fairly manage their richness in resources or whether this failure is a direct consequence of Western intervention.
The post-Cold War international system, based on a clear Western narrative, has left no room for post-colonial countries to develop by themselves. The political, economic and even military intervention of Western states constantly interferes with the national economies and intensifies all possible conflicts that, like in the case of the DRC, often start with growing tensions between the many different cultures and ethnicities that were ‘forced’ to coexist within a new country whose borders were artificially drafted by the former colonialists.
The different economic alliances between multinational corporations and rebels are hard to pinpoint, but it is obvious that cobalt still moves large amounts of capital as the demand for electronic goods keeps growing and growing all over the world. Hence, it is quite unlikely that the conflict in the DRC will end any time soon.