Electric Vehicles and Cobalt Mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Electric vehicles are going to be a staple of a clean future, and it should be everyone’s priority to make sure car companies are transparent about how they source their materials. The public should be aware of the violence that our technology fuels, but when has Western society ever cared about what happens in Sub-Saharan Africa?
Electric vehicles and cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a geopolitical analysis.
The claim that I am specifically following is more accurately described as a trend in the green technology revolution. Transportation is now the single largest sector of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and scientists believe that electric vehicles are the best widespread solution for reducing those emissions. This claim comes from Krosnick in 2020. This is not only a solution that scientists are behind, but also a solution that policymakers are actively talking about.
As some of the students in this class may know because of Professor O’Lear mentioning it in class, the raw materials that are at the base of the technology we use every day are mined in some of the poorest countries in the world. These minerals have often been linked to what is known as “the mineral curse.” This trend occurs when a nation like the Democratic Republic of the Congo or any other exporter of strategic minerals, continuously falls into a cycle of conflict due to the ability of these minerals to be sold to fund separatist movements and rebel groups. From a 1,000 yard view these minerals should be a boom to these nations, but when you get up close, you realize that these specific systems sustain a cycle of generational poverty.
So who is making this claim? That quote itself comes from a 2020 journal on climate insights. The article is on electric vehicle specifically and provided many insights on the scope of transportation emissions and their effect on total greenhouse gas emissions. It also introduces the idea that widespread electric vehicle proliferation would be a potential step to decreasing the emissions of light duty vehicles, which are accountable for 17% of the emissions in the United States.
Electric vehicles are also a rare example of green technology, having at least periodic bi-partisan support in Congress and the presidency. Both Trump and Biden have expressed support for electric vehicles in the past. For Biden, it’s a key part of his Climate Plan and includes policies like putting 500,000 charging stations along highways in the United States. Trump has also said that he is quote unquote, “all for electric vehicles,” and that he has “given big incentives for electric cars.” However, this did come at the same time as him removing a $7,500 tax credit for individuals buying electric cars in 2019. And both the Trump and Biden quotes come from the Kolodny article in 2020.
So how does this claim about the environment relate to risk and security? Environmental risk and security are two key features of this claim and the subsequent story that encapsulates the entire lithium ion battery supply chain. This is a system that pulls from a global supply chain, but over half of the global supply is generated in one country: the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With this unique scenario, a large portion of the effects of this global trade are concentrated in one country.
In this scenario, instability is inevitable. The violence and rights abuses that are present to supply the demand of Western markets pose a massive risk to the safety of all the peopleworking and living near these mining operations.
The security question takes a very different perspective because of the inquiring questions we ask in geopolitical analysis. Who is the system securing a future for? And how is the system set up to benefit who it does? This would of course be Western companies and consumers.
The question of who wins and who loses is fundamental to policy-making, international politics and should be more value than it is in the present day. It is hard to put a numerical value on slow violence that occurs from the externalities associated with the electric vehicle supply chain. And as such, these concerns are often barely mentioned or left out altogether in electric vehicle analysis.
With a critical analysis of this supply chain, it is easy to see how this system is setup to make western consumers feel good about the sustainability of the product they’re buying, while still allowing for workplace violations in the countries that supply the raw materials to produce the products we buy.
Given the immense inequities present in the cobalt supply chain, I thought it would be relevant to break down this story in particular with an in-depth geopolitical analysis. The story of benefit versus total cost that is examined by my story, leaves a few factors out when analyzing externalities associated with the proliferation of electric vehicles.
Many natural scientists and economists believe that one potential step to reducing our carbon emissions from the transportation sector would be the widespread adoption of electric cars that are powered through sunlight, wind, or water. This comes from Krosnick in 2020.
The claim that widespread conversion from combustion engines to electric vehicles would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions is not incorrect. However, it does not analyze the entirety of the environmental impact that this widespread transition would have. However, it does position itself nicely for wealthier Western countries that want to further reduce their contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions without having to pay the higher prices that would come along with proper wages, working conditions, and environmental protections in the mines where these minerals are extracted.
In the status quo, we as Western consumers get to take the moral high ground of reducing our emissions while effectively avoiding the entirety of the blame for the negative environmental impacts caused by cobalt mining. Mining as an industry is comparatively one of the worst sectors of the economy for the environment. The extraction and shipment of minerals relies heavily on fossil fuels to make their business model profitable. Mining also comes with unavoidable consequences of environmental destruction. It is really hard to tear up the ground and extract minerals without displacing animals and destroying ecosystems. This comes from Sovacool 2019. These are the environmental effects of electric car proliferation that we do not associate with their production because of the spatial scale of the cobalt supply chain.
This is compounded by the nature of the cobalt supply chain, and how many times these minerals exchange hands before they make it into a product that a consumer might use. Gordon 2019, page 9. These environmental impacts are also not uniquely caused by electric vehicle production. Cobalt is not only used in cars, but also present in almost every piece of technology we have become accustomed to in the Western world. Even though these factors on cobalt demand are not directly associated with my claim about electric vehicle proliferation, they do contribute to the same factors of environmental degradation. Everything from cell phones to fighter jets uses cobalt to some extent. Sovacool 2019, 915. Although electric cars are the fastest growing sector of cobalt demand, they are far from the only way the us consumers in the Western world contribute to negative impacts that are observed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
[spacey musical sting]
The second geopolitical analyses question I would like to analyze on my story is the role of human agency within this claim. As the story is presented, human agency is the actor that gives these miners a job and creates the green technology in the form of an EV for the wealthy consumer. However, this view is very limiting of the actual practices that take place inside the global cobalt supply chain.
The companies that create lithium ion batteries that power electric cars source their cobalt from a vast system of middlemen and international mining and refining companies. Electric vehicle companies like Tesla also sign contracts directly with refining companies or buy stakes in mines themselves. But in practice, these raw minerals pass through a number of companies and refining steps before they ever make it into a car. This is Goldman ’19, page 9.
One of the actors of human agency is the local elites and the role that they play in the global cobalt supply chain. Many local elites use coercion and redistribution to secure their role in the local system, whatever that role may be. This is Genes ’18, page 391. This means that if policymakers in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, have any sort of stake in mine, whether it be economic or political, they are incentivized to sustain the inequitable system we have currently in the name of profits.
Finally, I would like to examine the consequences of this system and the real impacts that it has on the people in the DRC. An estimated 35,000 children worked mining cobalt in 2019. This is Gordon, 2019. And that number is likely to rise with the growth of the lithium ion battery market of up to 500 percent in the year 2025. Sovicool 2019, page 915. The fact that children are able to find work in these mines opens up a wide range of horrible conditions that they could be subjected to that an adult would not have to worry about as much. A quote from a child worker named Yannik illuminates this exact problem. Quote unquote.
“As children, we were exploited and worked in very dangerous situations. We saw things that no child should see. There was a culture of rape and violence. Girls often fell victim to rape, which as children we were powerless to prevent. Sometimes lives were lost for a few francs.” That quote comes from Gordon in ’19.
The reason that most children start working in these mines is because they need to help support their family or pay their own school fees. So this is not a problem that is solved by companies boycotting the DRC and finding minerals elsewhere. This is a problem whose solution is rooted in combating generational poverty. That’s Kelly in ’19.
[low, foreboding tone]
The final geopolitical analysis that I will be examining is the spatial focus of this particular claim. Cobalt is used to create a surprising amount of technology that we use every day. One way that this is used is through the creation of lithium ion batteries and their use in almost every rechargeable electronic.
The spatial scale of the lithium ion battery supply chain is worldwide with different components mined all across the globe with some limited domestic operations that are overshadowed by the dominant producers and refiners of cobalt. These operations largely exist over seas. The DRC produces 60 percent of the global supply of raw cobalt. Sovacool 2019, page 915. And China houses the vast majority of cobalt refining capabilities in the world. This is Goldman 2019, Page 10.
The scale of this story is truly global, and it is because of this that it can be hard to track your technology back to the source and know if it was made with a mineral that was mined using child labor. If the companies that are supplying the mineral are from the industrial sector of the cobalt mining industry, then you can have more confidence that it was not produced using child labor. However, this sector only strengthens state control, fails to address poverty, perpetuates corruption, solidifies elitism, and can even lead to actual violence in certain cases. This is Sovacool 2019, page 916. This issue quickly becomes tricky as sourcing enough raw cobalt from countries other than the DRC can be difficult, and tech companies deciding to take their business elsewhere only make one of the poorest countries in the world even poorer.
I should take a moment to state that I am far from the first person to call into question the ethics of the cobalt mining industry in the DRC and yet these problems still persist. There has been no research that I could find as to why these problems get minimal media coverage in Western societies. I think that the externalities associated with my claim are so under covered because they force us Western consumers tocome to the realization that our demand for cobalt is that the root causes of the problems in the DRC and western society has yet to make the connection that I have tried to reinforce throughout this project.
That being said, the solution cannot be one that is rooted in excluding DRC cobalt from the global supply chain. But rather one that requires battery companies to actively work with their network of suppliers and brokers to ensure that their responsibly sourcing their minerals. This action should be taken even if it requires the prices of products to rise, as this is the direct result of the positive progress towards sustainable sourcing and are actively expanding import economy.
Consumers may be hesitant at first given that human rights abuses across the world are hard to associate with our consumption, but an equitable future is one that forces us to examine the entirety of our environmental impact, not just the aspects that are convenient.
This project has opened my eyes to how claims of the environment can be stretched to apply to much larger social trends, the impacts of the environment and the poor workers in foreign countries that make up the cost difference withtheir lives is almost never connected to the rises in global demand that are at the root of many impacts we see. The geopolitical analysis that includes asking how the environment is defined, who the direct actors are, and what the spatial scale of the story is is a key step in analyzing how the environment is defined and will be defined in the future. This is the key step that is often forgotten in policy making today.
We often get so caught up in making policy that is passable or marketable that we overlook who is getting hurt in the name of profit. I understand that electric vehicles are going to be a part of the sustainable future that we are trying to create. I just hope that with more supply chain transparency and oversight, we will be able to not bring the same old human rights abuses fromhistory into this new sustainable world that we must create. This goes for any of the green initiatives that companies and governments enact.
We should always try to look past the smoke screen and see what actions are really taking place on the ground and what long-term effects we could be overlooking.
Genes, Sara, and Jeroen Cuvelier. 2019. “Local Elites’ Extraversion and Repositioning: Continuities and Changes in Congo’s Mineral Production Networks.” The Extractive Industries and Society 6(2): 390-398. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exis.2018.10.013.
Goldman, Abby R., Frank S. Rotondo, and Jessica G. Swallow. 2019. “The Electric Vehicle Battery Supply Chain.” In Lithium Ion Battery Industrial Base in the U.S. and Abroad, 9-26. Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep22804.5.
Gordon, James. 2019. “Cobalt Mining in the DRC: The Dark Side of a Clean Future.” Raconteur, June 4, 2019. https://www.raconteur.net/corporate-social-responsibility/cobalt-mining-human-rights/.
Kelly, Annie. 2019. “Apple and Google Named in US Lawsuit over Congolese Child Cobalt Mining Deaths.” The Guardian, December 16, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/dec/16/apple-and-google-named-in-us-lawsuit-over-congolese-child-cobalt-mining-deaths.
Kolodny, Lora. 2020. “Biden and Trump Agreed on at Least One Thing in Debate: Support for Electric Vehicles.” CNBC, September 30, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/30/trump-and-biden-both-say-they-support-electric-vehicles-in-debate.html.
Krosnick, John A. 2020. Climate Insights 2020: Electric Vehicles. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future. https://www.rff.org/publications/reports/climateinsights2020-electric-vehicles/.
Sovacool, Benjamin K. 2019. “The Precarious Political Economy of Cobalt: Balancing Prosperity, Poverty, and Brutality in Artisanal and Industrial Mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” The Extractive Industries and Society 6(3): 915-939. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exis.2019.05.018.