Saturday, August 19, 2023

Unveiling the Dark Reality: The Human Cost of Electric Car Battery Production in Africa

The Human Toll of Electric Car Battery Production

The global shift towards electric vehicles is having a devastating impact on impoverished African miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Transitioning from traditional internal combustion engines to battery-operated electric engines has set off a race, and the European Union's decision to ban internal combustion engine sales by 2035 is a significant step in this direction.

The noble aim of achieving a carbon dioxide-free world is within reach, but unfortunately, the progress of electric car battery development has come at a high cost – the exploitation of vulnerable African miners.

Virtually every rechargeable electric device worldwide, including rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, relies on cobalt for power, enhancing and stabilizing their performance. Utilizing cobalt offers the advantage of significantly reducing the risk of battery fires. In 2021, the demand for cobalt shifted, with electric vehicles overtaking smartphones and PCs, accounting for 34% of total cobalt demand worldwide, consuming a staggering 59,000 tons.

Research is ongoing to create effective batteries that don't rely on cobalt, a pivotal step for the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Congo holds an impressive 70% of the globe's cobalt reserves. While most cobalt mining companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo are Chinese-owned, there's also a Western-controlled mining sector. Accounts from African miners reveal that working conditions in Chinese mines are markedly worse than those in Western-owned ones. These miners are also

In February 2022, The New York Times exposed extensive instances of racial abuse. Western mining companies might follow Western-style regulations, but they've also been found guilty of bribery and human rights violations.

Artisanal mining, an issue of concern in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is conducted informally by independent miners. They manually extract valuable mineral-rich rocks, crush and wash them, and sell the resulting metal to international traders at meager prices. Nearly 20% of Congo's cobalt production comes from artisanal mining. Large quantities of artisanal cobalt are purchased by Chinese companies.

Between 150,000 and 200,000 artisanal miners toil in Congo, including a staggering 80,000 children, supporting over a million more economically. Each miner earns a mere $0.75 to $3 per day. The average annual income in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a paltry $800. Over 80% of the population survives on less than $1.25 per day, the threshold for extreme poverty.

Since its independence in 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been ravaged by warfare and poor governance. The hazardous conditions for artisanal miners continue due to a scarcity of alternative job opportunities. The work is labor-intensive and perilous – cave-ins and injuries are common, pollution and exposure to hazardous materials are rampant, surpassing those in formal mining, and personal protective gear is scarce or absent. A recent incident involving an artisanal mining shaft collapse led to the tragic deaths of 15 individuals.

Progressive research into cobalt-independent battery production is ongoing, but its success is imperative for the Democratic Republic of Congo. A drastic drop in cobalt demand globally could leave hundreds of thousands of destitute Africans without income, forcing them to remain in desolated mining regions and preventing them from supporting agriculture.

The global campaign to transition from petrol/diesel vehicles to electric ones is marred by the serious exploitation of impoverished African labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While widely acknowledged, very little action has been taken. However, the Congolese government recently established the state-supported enterprise Générale des Carrières et des Mines (Gécamines) to regulate the artisanal cobalt sector, exclusively controlling its purchase, processing, and marketing. The initiative aims to uphold respectable mining standards and halt the sale of unethical cobalt.

The effectiveness of Gécamines remains uncertain. The Democratic Republic of Congo's government grapples with severe challenges, and its implementation is limited. Repeated conflicts and illegal mining undermine the country's ability to harness its immense natural resources.

Despite gaining independence in 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo continues to bear the scars of centuries of exploitative colonization, leaving its indigenous population and institutions in dire conditions. Since then, the nation has been plagued by warfare and poor governance. Despite ranking as Africa's second-largest country, with a landmass comparable to Western Europe and an abundance of valuable natural resources (including copper, gold, diamonds, cobalt, coltan, platinum, and oil), the country remains among the world's poorest.

The Democratic Republic of Congo's vast natural resources, which should be its greatest asset, have turned into its most formidable curse. It attracts ruthless exploitation at the expense of its citizens' well-being. The time has come to redirect these resources for the benefit of the Congolese population.

William Revell, emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCL, USC

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