Mining Of Cobalt for Electric Vehicle Batteries: The Social Impacts

May 26th 2023
Inside practically every electric vehicle (EV) is a lithium-ion battery that depends upon several key minerals to help power it. Typically, these include nickel, graphite, aluminum, copper, steel, lithium, cobalt, and manganese. Of these, the mining and processing of cobalt has attracted the most recent media attention because of the adverse social and environmental impacts. The purpose of this article is to shed more light on the nature of the social impacts.

The typical EV battery needs 6-12 kilograms of cobalt. The majority of the cobalt that is extracted in the world is a by-product of existing copper mines. Four fifths of the existing cobalt reserves are located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and it is by far the largest producer. Most of the cobalt production in the DRC is from deep, highly mechanized mines. However, about 15% of the world production comes from “artisanal” and small-scale mining (ASM). In the latter, labourers work with primitive tools like picks, shovels, and buckets. The mining and refining processes are labour-intensive and associated with a variety of health problems due to accidents, overheating, overexertion (lifting of heavy loads), dust inhalation, exposure to toxic chemicals and gases, poor sanitation and violence.

Cobalt production from artisanal mining in the DRC exceeds that from industrial mining in any other country. While in theory there are legal differences between industrial and artisanal mining supplies, in reality the boundary between the two remains quite blurry. Companies mix the two sources together as part of their supply chains prior to processing.

Artisanal mining is not new; it has been going on for decades. While data are poorly collected, it is currently estimated that between 140,000 and 200,000 people work as artisanal miners in the DRC. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, at least 25,000 and perhaps as many as 40,000 children are working in artisanal cobalt mines in the DRC, a number that is sure to grow as the production of electric cars increases.

The adverse conditions in the artisanal mines also affect the women who work in them. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in 2016 published a report on the working conditions these women face. The women work under difficult conditions for eight to ten hours per day. They experience “immeasurable” fatigue. The work is highly liable to lead to cancer in the future and to malformations in their offspring. Most of them work barefoot. Most of them suffer from menstrual disruption and are victims of miscarriages . Most of them have vaginal yeast infections. The report offers a sad picture of the lack of adequate shelter in one area.

“On both sites, there are makeshift houses consisting of huts made from tree branches, without any conveniences, that do not protect the population against bad weather. These huts do not have any sanitation whatsoever. These sites do not have a health centre or medical staff. Injured and sick people and pregnant women have to travel long distances in difficult conditions to reach a treatment centre.”

The reasons people work in these conditions are largely economic. Most artisanal miners in the DRC earn less than US $10 per day. While that is low compared to incomes in the OECD countries, it is considerably more than most earners in the DRC, who are living on an estimated US $1.90 per day. According to the World Bank, ASM is “indispensable” and “the most important non-farm activity in the developing world”.

Yet, the social costs are extraordinary. Siddharth Kara, a UK-based expert on modern slavery and senior fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, recently published a book entitled Cobalt Red. Based on her research, “The destruction caused by cobalt mining in the name of renewable energy is without contemporary parallel”. She writes:

“We shouldn’t be transitioning to the use of electric vehicles at the cost of the people and environment of one of the most downtrodden and impoverished corners of the world,” he says. “The bottom of the supply chain, where almost all the world’s cobalt is coming from, is a horror show.”

Before one begins to blame western mining companies for these practices, it is best to be reminded of the role played by Chinese companies, owned and controlled by the government of China, in the cobalt supply chain. They dominate it, from extraction of the mineral at mine sites in the DRC to smelters and refiners. Fifteen of the 19 cobalt-producing mines in the DRC were owned or financed by Chinese companies in 2020, according to the New York Times. Two-thirds of the world’s cobalt production is processed in China. Miners complain that the Chinese impose the price as they see fit, keeping it low to supply Chinese industry. As in many other areas, China is the primary beneficiary of the climate policy decisions made in OECD countries.

Credits to Friends of Science, Robert Lyman

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