The world consumes over 120,000 tons (and rising) of cobalt every year. In terms of the clean energy transition, it is used in the production of metal alloys and in lithium-ion batteries, in which the metal, in the form of lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2), is used as part of the cathode construction. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), approximately 35% of the total cobalt mined per year is used in lithium-ion batteries. This is expected to increase to 50% by 2030, as the demand for electric vehicles (EVs) continues to grow.
However, one country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) accounts for the majority – around 60% – of global cobalt production. In most cases cobalt is mined in small-scale operations, often by hand, and sold to intermediaries who then sell it to larger companies for processing. This complex supply chain makes it difficult to trace the cobalt back to its source and ensure provenance.
Cobalt mining has major environmental impacts, from the pollution of waterways and land with toxic chemicals to the deforestation of large areas of land, which has and will continue to have significant impacts on local ecosystems and the climate. A 2017 study by the United Nations Environment Programme found that cobalt mining in the DRC has resulted in the contamination of rivers and streams with heavy metals, such as cobalt, copper, and lead. This contamination has had a negative impact on aquatic life and human health. In addition, a 2018 study by the Congolese Institute for Conservation of Nature found that cobalt mining has resulted in the loss of over 1m hectares of forest in the DRC.
The social impacts of cobalt mining in the DRC are equally concerning. Often, these mines are run by small-scale miners who work in dangerous and often hazardous conditions. These workers are paid exceptionally low wages and do not have access to adequate safety equipment or training. Additionally, there have been reports of child labour and other forms of exploitation in the cobalt mining industry in the DRC, which has led to calls for greater transparency and accountability. The profits from the cobalt mining industry in the DRC have been used to fund armed groups and fuel conflict. This has led to instability and insecurity in the region, which has had a negative impact on the lives of people who live and work there.
The DRC government has prohibited child labour in the cobalt mining sector since 2018 and continues to work to improve the working conditions of miners, although its efforts, hampered by corruption scarcity of money and a lack of political will, have been patchy at best. It has failed to engage with local communities most affected by mining, especially in regard to offering a pathway to training and education for those that would otherwise be forced by poverty into mining
There is much to criticize the government of the DRC for with regard to its stewardship of the rare earth metals found within its borders. The large global companies who are the main beneficiaries of the cheap labour of the DRCs young and poor have made efforts to address the power imbalances within their supply chains. For instance Tesla and Apple, have committed to sourcing their cobalt from responsible sources and ensuring that their supply chains are transparent and traceable. Indeed in April 2023 Apple CEO Tim Cook announced Apple’s aim to be using recycled cobalt in 100% of its batteries from 2025.
Additionally, there are initiatives underway to improve the safety and working conditions for miners in the DRC and to promote sustainable mining practices. For instance, the Responsible cobalt Initiative (RCI) is an industry-led initiative from Apple, BMW, Glencore, Samsung, and Tesla that aims to improve the responsible sourcing of cobalt in the DRC. The RCI has developed a set of principles for responsible cobalt sourcing, and collaborates with cobalt producers, buyers, and other stakeholders to implement these principles. In terms of the 3rd sector, The Fair cobalt Alliance (FCA) fronted by NGOs such as Amnesty International, Oxfam, and the Enough Project, has developed a set of standards for responsible cobalt mining, and collaborates with cobalt producers, buyers, and other stakeholders to implement these standards.
Setting standards, either from within the industry and its customers, or from governments and well-meaning NGOs is the easy part. Applying them, gaining adherence to them, measuring and managing that adherence is a different ball game. Here, is where the all too familiar story of well-intentioned soundbites and glossy PR meets the cold light of reality. The processes of both the RCI and the FCA exhibit some inexcusable mistakes. For instance, the RCI does not require its members to conduct a “due diligence” process on its cobalt suppliers thereby leaving the door open for widespread child labour use, while the FCAs focus on traceability is undermined by not requiring its signatories to disclose the companies they are working with. Both of these glaring holes in these bodies’ processes show that the need to maximise margins throughout the supply chain will always outrank any societal or environmental good, even if societal and environmental considerations were the reasons these standards exist in the first place.
Governments, industry and NGOs need to do much more to ensure that the cobalt mining industry in the DRC is sustainable and responsible. This will require greater investment in infrastructure and technology to improve the efficiency and safety of mining operations, as well as greater transparency and accountability throughout the supply chain. Additionally, there needs to be greater support for local communities and workers, including efforts to improve access to education, healthcare, and other basic services.
While cobalt is a critical component in the devices we use every day, the mining of this precious metal has had significant impacts on both the environment and the people who live and work in the DRC. To address these challenges, vastly-improved efforts to promote sustainable and responsible mining practices are needed.