The true cost of cobalt: how can electric vehicles help drive a more Just Transition?

Jul 26, 2023 | Blogs, Monthly Briefing

In the race towards a carbon-neutral future, a grim reality lurks under the shiny bonnet of every electric vehicle (EV). Hailed as a solution to the internal combustion engine’s dependency on unsustainable fossil fuel, the archaic labour practices needed to mine the essential minerals for EV battery components are causing significant risks to human rights. Of course, such abuses in the supply chains of multinational corporations are not new, but this may be the first time that the efforts of a sector to decarbonise are potentially accelerating these violations.

The nickname “Blue Gold” suggests wealth, extravagance and prosperity – and indeed, many companies that have hopped on the cobalt train, are reaping such rewards. But no treasure comes without a price, and cobalt is costing lives.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is home to the world’s largest and best cobalt mines, boasting the highest grade and quality of deposits and reserves, earning the DRC the title “the Saudi Arabia of Cobalt”. However, nestled within the DRC’s cobalt-rich soil, unethical artisanal mining thrives, blurring the lines between labour and slavery. The local communities, desperate for employment, find themselves ensnared in a cycle where just securing work becomes the only option, no matter how degrading or unsafe.

The new and intense demand for cobalt, brought on by transitioning from traditional fuels to batteries, was once considered a blessing to Kolwezi, DRC’s cobalt capital. The country has been shaped by almost a century of mining, and the infrastructure and local economy have come to rely on extractive practices. This dangerous entanglement has resulted in complete dependence on the mine, as demand is expected to rise from 150,000 tonnes to 250,000 tonnes in the coming years, and in recent decades more than 150,000 people from all over the country have flocked to the area to take advantage of the cobalt windfall. The promise of a stable income and benefits may initially seem appealing, but as the horrific reality of the working conditions becomes apparent, miners find that they cannot leave.

The market for cobalt is unregulated, as it does not fall under the existing “conflict minerals” rules that cover tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold (the so-called 3TG) and a 2016 exposé from Amnesty International showed miners being exposed to lung and skin disease without any personal protective equipment. Workers are also at high risk of dying from cave-ins and floods.

The hard physical labour happens 30m underground, where miners dig cobalt by hand from the deposits, which is then passed along to runners and transferred up to the surface to be packed for weighing. Even then, the degradation continues. Talking to a French news team, one miner spoke about how buyers would rig the scales, so a bag that the locals knew to weigh 20kg would show as only 10kg. Three hundred and fifty bags of cobalt are mined daily, yet the workers are compensated for only half. Cobalt can fetch up to £70,000 per tonne on the market, so these workers are being robbed of almost £25,000 per tonne.

The whole of Kolwezi is built around the mining industry, and the community should be benefiting from this extraordinary wealth – which creates prosperity for European, US and Chinese companies – yet they remain in poverty. The government has been working to make mining safer, requiring membership of workers’ co-operatives, but such groups are hierarchical, and the workers have no say in how the mines are managed. Following the report from Amnesty International, public outcry forced companies in the sector to clean up supply chains and in 2021, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) started to track mining through comprehensive supply chain due diligence, an essential first step. However, such requirements are still falling short when it comes to the cobalt crisis in the DRC. Even the OECD has acknowledged the challenges this specific mineral poses, but beyond the reporting, it seems that the drive for change has stalled.

Unfortunately, merely understanding and reporting on business supply chains does not always equate to actionable change and better outcomes for the workers suffering. Even with a renewed lens applied to the fuller impact, the focus on human rights, particularly those in the global south, remains secondary. Businesses need to go beyond just identifying the issues within supply chains, and actively work to engage stakeholders and affected communities in order to design solutions that promote more responsible labour conditions and equitable remuneration. This could then enable some form of cobalt origins disclosures, thus allowing consumers to feel empowered when purchasing ethically mined products.

Accelerating transparency and trust will help ensure the road ahead for decarbonised transport is truly sustainable for all.