Electric cars are causing a boom in cobalt mining, but most of the resource is mined in dangerous conditions in the DRC.
One of the big changes facing the global transportation industry is electrification.
Big corporations and car manufacturers are ditching combustion engines, with Toyota saying it will have an electrified or hybrid version of all vehicles by 2025.
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A lot of the cobalt that's mined is generated from illegally operated mines that employ almost slave labour: underaged workers, illiterate workers, workers that don't get paid very much ... They're controlled by warlords and the industry is appallingly run.
But there is a dark side to this revolution.
Cobalt is one of the key ingredients added in electric batteries, and more than half of it is currently mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Amnesty says children as young as seven work in dangerous conditions in Congo cobalt mines.
“At the present time, you’d have to say that there isn’t a lot of regulation around the mining of cobalt,” says Gavin Wendt, the founding director and senior resource analyst at Australia-based Minelife.
“A lot of the cobalt that’s mined is generated from illegally operated mines that employ almost slave labour: underaged workers, illiterate workers, workers that don’t get paid very much … They’re controlled by warlords, and the industry is appallingly run.”
Wendt thinks recent international scandals in the car industry have put pressure on car manufacturers to ethically source the materials needed for their cars.
“We’re seeing more and more … pressure from society to ensure that these commodities are ethically sourced … A very big issue is going to be where this cobalt will come from, and hence companies are looking to source cobalt outside of the DRC as much as possible,” Wendt says.
With 54 percent of cobalt currently coming from the Congo, that goal is still a long way off.
Meanwhile, Wendt says demand for cobalt is estimated to grow by a staggering 9000 percent in the next two decades. This might drive the price of the resource up to the point that electric cars will become too expensive to make economic sense.
“The commodities themselves have to come down in price and that automatically means that more needs to be found,” Wendt says. “In the case of cobalt, of course we’re also talking about potential substitution … actually reducing the amount of cobalt that’s currently consumed in these typical batteries.”