GUEST BLOG: ‘red’ cobalt may help West hit its emission targets, but at what cost to other nations?, asks William Kelly

On the 30th of June 1960 the world was greeted with a new nation on the international stage as the Republic of Congo declared its independence from Belgium and was official recognised by the United Nations in September of that same year. Yet if you were to travel to a cobalt mine in Kolwezi City, in Lualaba Province, you’d be hard-pressed to find any change in the living conditions and standards of labour since the Belgian flag was lowered more than 60 years ago. As shown in the picture with this article, thousands of people descend into the gigantic pit to mine and remove the raw cobalt by hand, with many of these workers being women and children, creating a scene once thought to have only existed in the Victorian age.

Curiously Cobalt itself has only recently become a valuable resource, as prior to the 1990s it was a metal only used to colour glass, emblazon ceramics and for scientific experiments. However, following the mass introduction of personal computers, smartphones and other household electronics, the peculiarly conductive capabilities of refined cobalt began to make it as much a staple of the global economy as oil or timber. This has become all the more so as the environmental crisis has created a he demand for rechargeable batteries of which Cobalt is a critical component, a resource which countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have in abundance.

Naturally this has created both a tremendous economic opportunity and a monumental challenge for the DRC, one they are struggling to meet as the demands of foreign companies increase by the day. But the squalid conditions of the Congolese people aren’t just products of global markets pressures, they’re a direct result of the corruption and instability caused by the Congo’s politics. Despite having the illusion of a democracy with a written constitution, elections and a bi-cameral parliament (Two Houses) the DRC is a deeply authoritarian regime in which its people aren’t free to exercise their supposed civil liberties and political opposition groups are routinely arrested and suppressed.

The Catholic Church even highlighted the DRC’s growing authoritarianism after helping to organise and monitor the country’s general election in 2018 in which it cast doubt over Félix Tshisekedi victory stating, “their poll watchers already knew the winner before it was announced”. The Church, alongside its allies in the US and African Union, would back down however, seeing the first peaceful transition of power in the Congo’s history since independence as more important than an honest election. But this has come at the cost of the Congolese people’s ability to fully exercise control over their government and as a consequence eroded their trust in any government to bring about meaningful change to their appalling conditions.

During one of his many visits to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Siddharth Kara, an author and Harvard academic who has spent 20 years researching modern slavery, met a young woman sifting dirt for traces of cobalt. Priscille told him she had suffered two miscarriages and that her husband, a fellow ‘artisanal’ miner, died of a respiratory disease. “I thank God for taking my babies,” she said. “Here it is better not to be born.” This the reality of not just the Congolese people, but of all those who work in Dickensian conditions under authoritarian regimes on a continent which despite its many claims of liberty is now only home to five true democracies (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho and Ghana) in which its people enjoy somewhat similar freedoms to that of the West.

It is also testament to the Western Hemisphere’s own short-sighted belief that by simply converting from its current fossil fuelled way of life to a battery powered future somehow solves the worlds problems. Just look at the Congo Mines and see for yourself if those problems are solved by battery powered vehicles, as the conditions of these miners are directly impacted by the rest of the world’s desperate desire to enable the continued practice of their fundamentally unsustainable lifestyles. This is compounded by the fact that nearly all of the cobalt mined in the Congo isn’t exported to Western markets, but to refinery’s in East Asia and China – with the later making up over 60% of the DRC’s exports. So even the manufacturing centres that this brutal resource extraction creates is benefiting authoritarian states as well, with Western Democracies being the mere end point of a supply chain which crushes the liberty of billions for the sake of a Green Consumerist future.

However, the best illustration of the impracticality of our current environmental policies is when we look at the material cost in achieving them, taking the mass-electrification of cars as an example. As stated Cobalt is a critical component in the manufacturing of rechargeable batteries, but any given product only consists of 10%-30% depending on the manufacture, with the rest being a mixture of Manganese and Lithium. A typical battery used in the Tesla Model Y, the most popular electric car in the UK as of 2022, consists of 8Kg of lithium, 14kg of cobalt and 20kg of Manganese. Assuming then that we intended to electrify all personal vehicles in the UK, which as of 2022 stands at over 40.7 million, then the United Kingdom would need 358,912 MT of lithium, 628,096 MT of cobalt and 897,281 MT of Manganese to totally convert its current number of personal vehicles to electric power. The DRC, which accounts for over 70% of the world’s production of cobalt, only extracted 130,000 MT of the resource in 2022.

The Catholic Church often reminds us that we should live modestly by our own means, with even Pope John Paul II highlighting to us that, “work should be for the man, not man for the work” but when we look at the current environmental ambitions of our leaders we see just how lost these lessons are on them. Just this year the UK revised its carbon emissions targets to call for 80% of all vehicles in the country to be electrified in spite of the fact that there are only over 44,000 charging points in just fewer than 26,000 places across the UK. The politician’s of today aren’t so much interested in saving the environment, but in creating ways to sustain their dying world view where there’s a car in every driveway and a petrol station on every street corner. Needless to say the real human cost in extracting the necessary resources for these projects in the first place, which decimate the dignity of the worker and empower authoritarian states that ultimately do not share our ideological point of view.

In a way this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, for why should we expect the same politicians who took bribes of BP to cover up the environmental crisis and who turned a blind eye to the Rwandan Genocide in the 90s to now produce the legislation we and those abroad need? I personally find this state of affairs to be quite said, not because of the depressing hopelessness of the situation, but because of how the environmental ambitions of our respective countries could be so much more. Creating a sustainable future isn’t just about reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, but is also about addressing the poverty faced by people both at home and abroad, for the other side of the debate most politicians disregard is the discriminatory nature of car-based economies. For even if we had the resources to produce enough electric cars en-mass, what do those who have neither the financial means or cognitive ability to use a car do in a world designed around them? How does someone in poverty afford such a vehicle, or how does a pensioner reach the corner shop that’s over a mile’s walk away with a six-lane motorway in their path?

The past 30 years has seen an astonishing rise in the environmental narrative, but what has consistently prevent any sustained action to solve the crisis is both politicians’ and the public’s own inability to imagine a world different from the one they currently have. I would show those same people how different the world of past generations was to the one they currently inhabit now, and that a world of mass motorisation, which pollutes the planet, and modern day postcolonial enslavement of Africa’s natural wealth is just a blip in the span of history.

However, only we can ensure this period of decadence and decay remains brief by resolving to what is hard and do what is right, by devoting ourselves to the rescue of a suffering humanity and to live with a little less so that others may live with so much more.

William Kelly is a Politics and International Relations graduate at Liverpool Hope University