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Electric vehicle transition comes with uneven costs

Governments, car makers and tech companies are promoting electric vehicles, but are they considering the uneven social and environmental costs from extracting the critical minerals needed to make batteries?

By 2050, cars with internal combustion engines should largely be a thing of the past across much of the world. But the route to an all-electric car fleet is fraught with complications, primarily the need for raw materials such as lithium and cobalt that must be mined from the Earth to create the batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs).

Prime minister Boris Johnson wrote in the foreword to the UK government’s Ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution: “Imagine how our Green Industrial Revolution could transform life across our United Kingdom. You cook your breakfast using hydrogen power before getting in your electric car, having charged it overnight from batteries made in the Midlands. Around you, the air is cleaner.”

Three of the 10 points in the plan relate to electric vehicles of various kinds, but no words related to mining or minerals feature anywhere in the 38-page document.

Mining is already directly responsible for 4-7% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and cobalt – a vital component in most of the lithium-ion battery cells created for electric cars – is one of the most GHG-intensive commodities to mine and process.

Despite Johnson’s claim of batteries from the Midlands, 70% of the global cobalt supply in 2021 was produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s Katanga region, the location of nine of the world’s 10 biggest cobalt-producing mines, and 46% of the world’s cobalt reserves.

For rich countries in the Global North, one of the many benefits of the shift to EVs will be the elimination of much of the pollution that hangs in towns and cities.

But in Katanga, the air is filthy from decades of mining. It is one of the 10 most polluted places on the planet and, according to Congolese climate activist Remy Zahiga, it’s not just the air that is polluted.

“Some companies even discharge waste water from ore washing plants (mixed with chemicals) into the rivers, or [in places that cause] infiltration of groundwater, thus depriving the local population of clean water – with the consequent loss of human lives due to waterborne diseases,” says Zahiga, 25, who holds a master’s degree in geology.

The DRC has more than half of Africa’s water reserves, but only 52% of the population has access to a safe water source. And while Congo’s cobalt is powering the EV revolution, only 19% of its population has access to electricity.

Half of the cobalt produced each year is already used in electric car batteries, and with annual cobalt production projected to grow by a factor of 18 by 2050 – just to meet the material demand for battery-powered vehicles – the pollution in Katanga is set to worsen.

In the region’s biggest city, Lubumbashi, there is a widely held belief that men who work in the mines are more likely to have a child born malformed. A study published in The Lancet two years ago supports that belief – researchers found a strong association between paternal occupational mining and birth defects.

“The local population will suffer consequences due to the degradation of the environment and the climate that they never carried out,” says Zahiga.

Industrial vs artisanal mining

Most attention from the Global North has focused on the artisanal mining sector, which is understood to facilitate child labour and modern slavery, and is more prone to dangerous accidents due to a lack of expensive safety equipment.

Multinational mining companies, and the consumer-facing brands they serve, have been keen to distance themselves from the informal sector by distinguishing the industrial mining sector – which is responsible for 80% of Congo’s cobalt production – as a beacon of respect for human rights by comparison.

A report published November 2021 by Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID), a UK-based corporate watchdog, shatters that false dichotomy. Over a period of 28 months, the organisation studied working conditions at five of the world’s largest industrial copper and cobalt mines, which accounted for 40-45% of the global cobalt supply in 2020.

“We found the bar to be very low across the board,” says Anaïs Tobalagba, a legal and policy researcher at RAID. “Industrial cobalt mining in DR Congo carries severe human and labour rights violations in quite systematic and troubling ways.”

Read more about critical minerals and technology supply chains

Together with the Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire (CAJJ), a Congolese legal aid centre specialising in labour rights, RAID identified a two-tier system in which 57% of the 26,455 mine workers were employed as subcontractors, in a model that facilitates exploitation by design.

“According to the workers and representatives of subcontractors we interviewed, multinational mining companies in the DR Congo’s copper and cobalt belt use subcontractors for three main reasons – to cut costs, to avoid liability under Congolese labour law, and to prevent workers from unionising,” says Tobalagba.

Some 63% of subcontractors earned less than the living wage of $402 a month, most were not afforded sufficient healthcare, and many were denied adequate supplies of food and water during long shifts.

“These are labour practices that would not be tolerated by most EV consumers in the Global North, and yet it is the price Congolese workers pay to allow these same consumers to access ‘green’ technologies,” says Tobalagba. “A just transition must not overlook workers.”

Local dynamics

Ben Radley, a lecturer in international development at the UK’s University of Bath, has spent a decade studying the DRC’s mining industry. In 2020, he published research into the economic impact of an industrial gold mine’s entry to a site that previously hosted artisanal mining alone.

He found most workers at the industrial mine had not seen significant wage growth, compared with artisanal mining wages, despite a 25-fold increase in productivity during the seven years since industrialisation. Also, the number of people employed locally had fallen by 48% in that time, with the total income earned locally 37% less than it was before.

“I think these sorts of dynamics are likely to be similar across different minerals [including cobalt],” says Radley. “One of the often unintended, but real consequences of trying to draw attention to labour or human rights abuses in artisanal and small-scale mining is that you further marginalise that sector, and you further push things towards the industrial formal sector.”

Radley’s research shows that while the industrial sector may be free of child labour, it also leads to less of the money generated from mining being retained by the DRC, and in particular those people who live in the mining regions – with all the health costs that this entails.

“After exploitation of wealth, these companies pack their bags full of profits from exploitation, leaving local communities in immense poverty,” says Zahiga.

The DRC possesses untapped mineral resources worth an estimated $25tn – more than the whole US economy, which is worth $23tn.

Despite the material wealth of the land on which they live, 73% of the Congolese population lives on less than $1.90 a day – the international poverty rate – and 43% of its children are chronically malnourished. 

“Being young and conscientious of the natural wealth and the development of my country, I must contribute to break the chains so that these riches contribute to the emergence and development of my country. Congo’s wealth should not be its curse”
Remy Zahiga, DRC climate activist

“Being young and conscientious of the natural wealth and the development of my country, I must contribute to break the chains so that these riches contribute to the emergence and development of my country. Congo’s wealth should not be its curse,” says Zahiga.

“For this wealth to benefit all Congolese, the Congo as a country must invest its own capital and not wait for a foreign company to come and operate it.”

Radley agrees on the need for Congo’s wealth to benefit Congolese people, adding: “I would always personally advocate for policy developments that lead the Congo and other African countries closer towards reclaiming sovereignty over their resource wealth. And the way to do that is to increase either state ownership or domestic firm ownership of those minerals.”

While the Congolese government is trying to do just that – in 2020 it created a state company that will have a nationwide monopoly on the rights to purchase cobalt from artisanal miners – there are fears that market conditions may already be shifting against the DRC’s favour.

Nature Communications published an article in March 2022 in which researchers found that “even under the most optimistic scenario”, a cobalt supply shortage “appears inevitable” between 2028 and 2033. Electric car manufacturers, growing increasingly concerned, are looking to shift towards cobalt-free batteries.

Radley describes this as “an elephant in the room” in the DRC, where the government is “hedging a lot of bets on this as a long-term development strategy”.

“I think there is a big risk that the world could move on [from cobalt] before Congo has been able to meaningfully reap the benefits,” he adds.

A crisis in raw materials

Moving away from cobalt is no silver bullet for car manufacturers however. Whichever battery chemistry they adopt will still require the extraction of vast quantities of minerals, and while there is a growing preference for lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries in the EV market, nickel-rich cathodes containing cobalt are expected to remain dominant for at least the next decade.

With countries around the world on the verge of a rapid and simultaneous shift toward electric cars, demand for battery cathode materials is about to surge exponentially. Fears abound that supply – of both nickel and lithium – may struggle to keep up.

“I would argue that we are in a materials crisis, rather than just an energy or climate crisis,” says Andy Whitmore of the London Mining Network.

Unforeseen geopolitical events, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, may further complicate matters. In the last two years, more than 10% of the global nickel supply was produced in Russia, and the invasion has already unleashed chaos on the nickel market.

Forecasts also tend to overlook the potential impacts of grassroots interventions – “be it at the proposed Thacker Pass mine in the US with indigenous opposition, or the Jadar lithium mine in Serbia where a national movement has for now stalled the proposed mine”, says Whitmore.

“It is arguable that the shift to an environmental leftist government in Chile, which is rewriting its constitution to offer better protections to the environment and local communities, is a result of the unfettered access that copper and lithium companies have enjoyed, and what that has meant for those communities.”

The extraordinary volume of minerals that will need to be extracted – much of it from economically deprived communities – therefore provides an opportunity to lift some of the world’s most disadvantaged people out of destitution.

However, barring a radical transformation in the thinking of decision-makers in the Global North, it will continue to pan out, according to author and philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O Táíwò, “in a way that compounds and locks in the distributional injustices we have inherited from history”.

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