Embedded within our technological era is a metal fraught with controversy – cobalt. This silvery-blue element, indispensable for the production of lithium-ion batteries that power everything from smartphones to electric vehicles, also casts an ethical shadow over modern industry.
The Cobalt Conundrum
Cobalt’s significance in our daily lives is indisputable. It enhances the efficiency of lithium-ion batteries, ensuring they can store vast amounts of energy while maintaining stability across temperature extremes. From aerospace applications to clean energy technologies, cobalt plays a pivotal role in advancing our interconnected world.
However, the narrative takes a darker turn when delving into the source of this coveted metal. Over 70 percent of the world’s cobalt originates from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where artisanal mines operate in conditions described as “subhuman” and “degrading.” Thousands of freelance miners toil for meager wages, often just a few dollars a day, facing hazardous conditions that have sparked concerns over modern-day slavery, human trafficking, and child labor.
A fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health reveals the grim reality in a book, Cobalt Red, exposing the untold deaths and environmental contamination resulting from the so-called cobalt rush in the DRC. The mines not only yield cobalt but also bring forth copper and uranium, the latter being a known carcinogen.
A case study in Kasulo, an urban neighborhood in the Congolese city of Kolwezi, reveals the alarming impact on local communities. Researchers from KU Leuven in Belgium and the University of Lubumbashi found that children in the mining district had ten times the amount of cobalt in their urine compared to their counterparts in other areas. The airborne cobalt and uranium released during the mining process pose severe health risks, potentially leading to long-term conditions such as lung disease and cancer.
A Call for Responsibility
In response to growing environmental and ethical concerns, major companies like Apple and Tesla have pledged to reduce their reliance on cobalt or source it from responsible producers. BMW, for instance, has been procuring cobalt from Morocco and Australia since 2020. Despite these initiatives, the World Economic Forum’s white paper predicts a fourfold increase in global demand for cobalt by 2030, fueled primarily by the rise of electric vehicles.
Recycling emerges as a potential solution to curb the demand for mined cobalt. A company founded by a former Tesla CTO specializes in recovering materials like cobalt from spent lithium-ion batteries. By 2025, the company aims to produce enough recycled materials for one million electric vehicles annually, presenting a promising step towards sustainability.
In the pursuit of a domestic supply of rare Earth minerals, the U.S. has intensified its efforts to reduce reliance on foreign sources of cobalt. As the nation gears up for a transition to renewable energy and zero-emission vehicles, the focus on electric vehicles becomes paramount.
However, this drive for sustainability is not without its challenges. Domestic mining operations for essential metals like cobalt could encroach upon Indigenous lands. Research reveals that significant reserves of cobalt, among other metals, are within 35 miles of Native American reservations.
An associate professor of law at Lewis & Clark Law School emphasizes the importance of not sacrificing the health and safety of communities living near these deposits. Stricter policies from the Bureau of Land Management are advocated, preventing mining at sacred sites on reservations and ensuring tribal leaders have a meaningful role in decision-making.
As the world grapples with the dual challenges of environmental sustainability and ethical sourcing, the cobalt conundrum serves as a poignant reminder that the quest for progress must be tempered with responsibility and a commitment to safeguarding both human rights and the environment.