New Book Exposes How EV Makers Are ‘Ransacking The Congo’ For Cobalt
Imagine for a moment if the oil and gas sector had direct (or indirect) connections to slavery, child labor, or working conditions so dangerous that thousands of their workers were dying on the job every year.
The uproar and indignation would be heard from here to Houston. [emphasis, links added]
But in the case of the world’s supply of cobalt—an element that is a critical ingredient in the batteries that are driving the global EV craze—the response to the widespread use of child labor and hell-like working conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has gone largely unnoticed and vastly underreported.
Siddharth Kara is among the world’s bravest journalists. And his new book, Cobalt Red: How the Blood Of The Congo Powers Our Lives, is a must-read. It is a compelling, confounding, and withering indictment of the global supply chains that provide cobalt to battery makers.
It is also, by extension, an indictment of the electric vehicle sector and its insatiable hunger for the metals, minerals, and magnets that will be required for the much-hyped “energy transition.” (For more on this, see my January 15 piece on China’s dominance of rare earth and NdFeB magnets.)
Lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous in our lives. The majority of the consumer electronics with rechargeable batteries—mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and other gizmos that we touch nearly every day—contain cobalt.
But the biggest consumer is the EV sector. In 2021, according to the Cobalt Institute, about 34% of global cobalt production, or roughly 60,000 tons, was used to produce EVs. Another 31% was used in other battery applications. The rest was used in metals, chemicals, and superalloys.
Cobalt is critical to EVs because it increases the energy density of batteries. Higher energy density allows EVs to travel further on a charge. Cobalt also helps prevent the cathodes in batteries from overheating and catching fire.
And while many battery makers and EV companies are developing and using batteries that cut down, or eliminate the use of cobalt, the demand for the metal is soaring and the vast majority of that demand is coming from EVs.
“Cobalt demand is expected to continue rising rapidly as the EV transition gains pace,” says a report published last May by the Cobalt Institute. “Demand is forecast to approach 320,000 tons in the next five years, from 175,000 tons in 2021; 70% of growth will come from the EV sector.” (Emphasis added.)
That same report says that Congo produced 74% of the world’s supply of cobalt in 2021 and “87% of annual growth.”
It continued, saying output from the “artisanal and small-scale mining sector is estimated to have increased to 14,500 tons in 2021, 12% of the DRC’s total supply.”
But that likely understates the actual output of these small and incredibly dangerous, mines. Kara says that the “artisanal” share of Congo’s cobalt output may exceed 30%. …snip…
To be sure, other researchers, including Laura Murphy of Sheffield Hallam University, are doing great work documenting slavery in today’s global supply chains.
Murphy’s work on forced labor in the solar sector, and other sectors, in China’s Xinjiang Province, was a key factor in the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which President Biden signed into law in 2021.
But Kara’s reporting in Cobalt Red surpasses anything that I have read on these issues. His compassion, bravery, and dogged pursuit of the story are unrivaled.
Kara told me that he began traveling to the Congo in 2018. He ended up making four trips to the country and with each trip, his reporting and eye for detail grew stronger.
For those of you who have started reading “Cobalt Red” – this is what those tunnels in Kasulo look like. #cobaltred pic.twitter.com/eMZO7O8qiQ
— Siddharth Kara (@siddharthkara) February 5, 2023
Some of the most powerful passages are from his visits to Kasulo, a region where locals were digging tunnels almost immediately beneath their homes in the pursuit of cobalt. He writes:
- The air was hot with the scramble for cobalt. The full spectrum of human emotion burst forth from every tunnel: hope, dread, greed, fear, anger, envy, and above all—torment. The mothers of Kasulo endured the greatest torment of all. Most of them did not wish to speak with me. There is grief, and then there is soul-wrenching misery. There is loss, and then there is life-destroying calamity. One encounters the limits of what human hears can endure all too often in the Congo. The land is filled with monsters, and the beast that dwells beneath Kasulo is a thousand-headed hydra, mouths agape, waiting for its prey to enter.
- When a tunnel collapses in Kasulo, most bodies are never recovered. The family members are unable to give their loved ones a proper funeral. They are compelled instead to walk each day upon their dead. That is the reality that no one up the chain wants us to see. That is the truth that is meant to be buried there. The cruel design of a tunnel collapse makes sure of it, and everyone knows it. Perhaps they count on it—the impenetrable silence that obscures the vast tally of severed lives upon which great fortunes are built.
Kara saw how deadly the mining can be firsthand. In 2019, he witnessed the devastation of the collapse of a mining site called Kamilombe.
- Hearing secondhand testimonies was one thing, but when I finally saw the tragic consequences of a tunnel collapse with my own eyes, it was utterly devastating. Sixty-three men and boys were buried alive in a tunnel collapse at Kamilombe on September 21, 2019. Only four of the sixty-three bodies were recovered. The others would remain forever interred in their final poses of horror. No one has ever accepted responsibility for these deaths. The accident has never even been acknowledged. This was the final truth of cobalt mining in Congo: the life of a child buried alive while digging for cobalt counted for nothing. All the dead here counted for nothing. The loot is all.
During my interview with Kara, he told me that the EV makers are “ransacking the Congo.” He continued, saying they are “participants in this enormous violence but they look the other way.”
When I said that some cobalt producers and EV makers are paying more attention to their supply chains, and are trying to make sure they aren’t buying cobalt that was produced from the deadly mines in Congo, he said, “It’s all puffery.”
What does Elon Musk say about cobalt’s deadly supply chains? As you can see in this clip, he told Joe Rogan, “nobody actually cares.”
Was Musk being flip? According to one report, about half the Tesla vehicles produced in the first quarter of 2022 “were equipped with cobalt-free lithium iron phosphate [LFP] batteries.”
Earlier this month, Ford announced that it would spend $3.5 billion on a factory in Michigan that will produce LFP batteries. Although LFP cells don’t match the energy density of ones that use cobalt, they are cheaper to make and last longer.
Nevertheless, the Cobalt Institute says that the “top EV models in Europe and the US are still dominated by nickel-cobalt chemistries.”
The report lists 20 of the top-selling EVs, a group that includes familiar vehicles like the Nissan Leaf, Porsche Taycan, and Chevy Bolt. Of those 20 EVs, 16 of them rely on nickel-cobalt batteries.
When I asked Kara what he wanted to see happen, he replied that his goal as a journalist and witness to the slave trade is to “flood the world with truth.”
Cobalt Red is a truth bomb. Buy it and read it.
Read more at Substack
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