Green cars and green energy are built on the blue hypocrisy of cobalt mining

The fight against climate change is rife with cognitive dissonance. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the dash to electrify cars. In the words of Siddhart Kara, a journalist who appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience earlier this year, it has caused such misery that never in history “has more suffering generated more profit, and been linked to the lives of more people around the world.”

He was referring to the appalling conditions under which cobalt is mined in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The central African country contains up to 70 percent of the world’s accessible reserves of the metal, which is used to stabilise and enhance the performance of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries; the kind that’s used in practically every rechargeable electronic device and electric car.

Congolese cobalt is probably in the battery of the device you’re using to read this article. And a significant portion of it was probably dug out of the ground by hand, by a shabbily dressed man or teenager, crushed, washed and loaded into a sack, and then lugged to a depot and sold for pennies to a foreign company, probably a Chinese one, thereby entering the global cobalt supply chain.

Up to a fifth of cobalt that leaves the DRC is produced through artisanal mining, as this method of extraction is known, according to a Reuters report. This is more than all the cobalt produced by Russia, the world’s second largest source before 2022. As of 2021, more than 150,000 artisanal miners were digging for cobalt in the DRC, on the margins of industrial mines, in random fields across the mining belt, and even through the floors of their own houses (such is the richness of the deposit).

It is a labour-intensive and highly dangerous endeavour, with higher rates of mine collapse, pollution, workplace injuries and exposure to toxic materials than in the formal mining sector. Additionally, the vast majority of these miners, as Mr Kara documented over several trips to the DRC, lack personal protective equipment. But the lack of viable alternative employment makes them so dependent on the work that they cannot feasibly just stop doing it.

Western companies, like Switzerland-based Glencore, whose DRC mines produce nearly 20 percent of the global supply of cobalt, are quick to point out that they are better than their Chinese counterparts, with more formal and industrial mines. This may very well be true; being public companies, at least they get to be scrutinised by human rights organisations and have to comply with Western-style regulation.

But that doesn’t mean they are as clean as they should be. Multiple reports have detailed human rights abuses at Glencore’s mines and instances of massive corruption in its global operations over the years. Just last year, the company was fined over US$1.1 billion after pleading guilty in the United States to charges of “foreign bribery and market manipulation schemes,” including bribing officials in the DRC.  

Artisanal miners in Democratic Republic of Congo. Kenny Katombe, Reuters, NTB Scanpix. Creative Commons. 

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A recent report by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, a non-profit, is the latest to draw attention to the human suffering caused by this climate change hysteria-induced industry. According to the organisation, which has tracked these matters since 2010, Glencore, once again, ranked highest in a list of mining companies ranked by the number allegations of human rights abuses.

What’s more, as Mr Kara argues, there is no such thing as clean cobalt. Not even the technology and automotive companies that claim to only use cobalt that’s not obtained by artisanal mining – like Tesla, which sources almost exclusively from Glencore – can ensure that they don’t get the tainted stuff.

Even Glencore’s cobalt is refined by Chinese companies, which mix it in with everything else. And that’s to say nothing of all the other companies, whose cobalt sources are shrouded in even more mystery. For instance, China-based CATL, the world’s largest lithium-ion battery manufacturer and a major battery supplier to major European and American automakers, is much less transparent about how it sources cobalt.

However, the fact that it has a stake in China Moly, a major cobalt miner that is known, along with its fellow Chinese mining companies, to buy large amounts of artisanal cobalt in the DRC, as well as for their tendency to mistreat and subject even their formal employees to dangerous working conditions, says a lot.

In short, the drive to promote electric vehicles is joined at the hip with this human tragedy. What’s more, everyone knows about it, including all the organisations that are shouting the loudest about the need to curb climate change. Crucially, however, not one has suggested applying the brakes, or even taken concrete measures to resolve the situation by, for instance, helping artisanal miners obtain personal protective equipment.

So obsessed with the green agenda are they that the furthest they are willing to go is impotent handwringing. The most concrete suggestion that has been made is that perhaps the industry should reduce its dependency on cobalt. But, aside from the fact that cobalt-free lithium-ion batteries are still unstable fire hazards, moving away from cobalt would also leave hundreds of thousands of people without an income, and a scarred landscape upon which agriculture would no longer be tenable.

In the meantime, from the capitals of Europe, North America and the Far East, far away from the worst of the suffering, policy makers are going full steam ahead with their energy transition. China is madly churning out electric vehicles. The European Union has banned the sale of internal combustion engine (ICE) cars after 2035. The UK’s deadline is 2030.

Across the pond, the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 strongly pushes for the mass adoption of EVs. And California, an influential car market, has also banned new ICE vehicle sales by 2035, which will probably drag along the rest of the US anyway. Given that electric vehicles only made up just over 14 percent of new car sales in 2022, the demand for cobalt and, with it, the misery of even more poor Congolese artisanal miners, are about to shoot through the roof

Advocates of the energy transition like to point out that poor countries, like the DRC, are likely to suffer the worst effects of climate change. They point to erratic weather, droughts, floods, landslides and intensified tropical storms as just a taste of the troubles to come. Perhaps the irony of attempting to forestall these effects by countenancing the suffering of the poorest people in the world is lost on them.


Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image credit: cartoon by Brian Doyle 

Showing 11 reactions

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  • Joel W. H.
    commented 2023-06-30 09:14:04 +1000
    The cobalt mining conditions have been reported to be brutal in Africa and so it is hypocritical to say that any cobalt-using machine or device is better for mankind until this problem is fixed. This is a harsh topic, but I also might want to say that improving the mining conditions is an easier problem to fix than finding a way to make completely pollution-free cars. With that said here’s another thing they don’t tell you about electric cars: when electric cars get into collisions the batteries can leak all over the road and sometimes this happens in residential gardens and public, commercial spaces. Trust me, I’ve had the pleasure of working with one of the best towing companies in Canada – – and during so I witnessed several car collisions near Toronto. In both collisions one car was electric and the other was an older gasoline-powered model. At the scene of the accidents I could hear this horrible hissing sound. At first I though it was gasoline leaking and I was cautious getting closer. The tow truck operator told me it wasn’t gas leaking but rather chemical acid leaking from the electric car battery. Now I don’t know what’s worse, gas leaking or electric battery juice?
  • Michael Sobb
    followed this page 2023-06-24 14:29:35 +1000
  • Michael Cook
    followed this page 2023-06-24 13:41:36 +1000
  • Juan Pedro Maldonado
    commented 2023-06-24 13:07:51 +1000
    The problem is: what would be left for these workers if car producing countries stopped buying their cobalt? Is it in the hands of these countries to do anything to improve the conditions of those workers? Are the Congolese authorities or businessmen – the only ones who really could enforce the improvement of their labour conditions – going to do it?
  • Thomas Skrovanek
    followed this page 2023-06-24 11:28:49 +1000
  • Julian Cheslow
    commented 2023-06-24 05:19:19 +1000
    I would just like to ask, what climate change solutions are people open to embracing? Because while green energy can have its own issues, talking about climate change hysteria when you aren’t presenting a alternative makes me think you just don’t believe it’s a problem worth addressing.

    Regarding green energy specifically I don’t know if I would stop it completely, but I don’t think anyone should be exploited to get it. Kids should never be pushed into doing the mining,and adults who decide to do it should get all the protective gear they ask for, have control over the hours, etc.
  • mrscracker
    I was having a conversation with a part-time California resident & they complained about the price of gasoline out there. It was significantly higher than in my part of the US. But they said, “It’s ok because in a few years all the vehicles in Calif. will be electric.”
    When I enquired what the source of all that extra electricity would be they said " From outlets in the wall of course." Then I asked what was the source of the power in the outlets? They answered: “The electric company”. And so the conversation went. They
    really seemed to have no idea that electricity has to be generated from something, often fossil fuels. It isn’t magically created at a power company to emerge in an electric outlet in your garage.
    Calif. is a US state that already experiences “Brown outs” because they can’t properly manage their current power needs. Imagine what will occur when every vehicle in that state depends upon electricity?
  • Tony Purcell
    followed this page 2023-06-24 00:56:48 +1000
  • Anthony Harman
    followed this page 2023-06-23 23:09:34 +1000
  • Albert Gersh
    commented 2023-06-23 11:14:56 +1000
    It seems green is not everything is was promoted to be
  • Mathew Otieno
    published this page in The Latest 2023-06-21 16:43:25 +1000