CONVENTIONAL wisdom has it that electric cars are going to beat climate change. The SNP Government, for instance, is pledged to phase out new petrol cars in Scotland by 2032, eight years ahead of the UK. The First Minister has announced plans to make the A9 Scotland’s first fully electric-enabled road. South of the Border, Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged that all London’s taxis and minicabs will be electric by 2033.
However, the trouble with conventional wisdom is that it frequently masks a deal of naked self-interest. And behind self-interest lurks the next big disaster. Remember when everyone thought Facebook was a free way of keeping in touch with friends and family? Instead it turned out to be a Big Brother commercial espionage system that sells your intimate personal secrets for profit or for political advantage. In like fashion, beware the Janus face of electric cars. Far from solving climate change, they are introducing a whole new set of environmental and social problems.
These problems have a name: cobalt. This is a very rare metallic element, usually found alongside nickel, silver and copper deposits. The word itself derives from an old German word, kobolt; a mythical goblin who was supposed to steal the silver ore and leave behind the blue, oxidised cobalt. For millennia, it was used to impart the distinct hue to expensive glass and ceramics. Then the modern industrial world found extraordinary new uses for cobalt.
For starters, in the 1950s, cobalt was experimented with as an additive to thermonuclear weapons, in an attempt to build a doomsday machine that could irradiate the entire Earth. Think Dr Strangelove. Fortunately, these experiments proved less than conclusive. But in recent decades, cobalt has found an indispensable role in the rechargeable lithium batteries used in mobile phones and electric cars. Without cobalt in the electrodes, you can’t recharge lithium batteries. Put another way, what iron was to the Industrial Revolution, cobalt will be to the post-CO2 age.
There’s just a wee problem: cobalt is super rare in the Earth’s crust. And around 70% of what is mined comes from just one place: the (not) Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC is nine times the size of the UK and has a population of 92 million. That may sound a lot, except for the fact this desperate land has been subject to more naked exploitation, spine-chilling cruelty and naked violence than any other part of the planet. Reason: the DRC is one of the world’s most blessed pieces of real estate when it comes to mineral wealth.
Everyone – Belgians, Brits, Americans and now Chinese – wants the DRC’s diamonds, tin, gold, copper and now cobalt. The Congo’s untapped mineral deposits are worth an estimated $24 trillion. That’s 10 times the UK GDP. Ordinary Congolese should be moderately prosperous. Instead they are dirt poor with an average per capital income of $10 a week.
To scrape a living, around 150,000 Congolese – children and adults – regularly trespass on the “property” of the big Western and Chinese mining companies who own the cobalt rights. There they dig flimsy, dangerous tunnels – sometimes to a depth of 100 metres – to mine for cobalt with their bare hands. They die like flies. In June, 43 of these “informal” miners died in a pit collapse. Think of that the next time you use your mobile phone or plug in your electric car.
In theory, this “informal” activity is discouraged by the big mining companies such as UK-Swiss Glencore, the 10th largest company in the world, on whose property the latest deaths took place. Mining firms themselves use giant earth-moving equipment for efficiency. But strange to say, a third of the DRC’s output of cobalt still comes from informal mining. That’s around a quarter of the global total that ends up in your mobile phone and electric car batteries. It’s clear that despite protestations of innocence by mining companies, cobalt is entering the international supply chain that originates with savage exploitation of the poorest of the poor.
The DRC’s informal miners are ruthlessly subjugated by local criminal gangs who provide “protection” that is little more than intimidation. These gangs then sell the ore to a Chinese company called Huayou, which has a smelting operation in the Congo. Huayou then supplies cobalt to the Korean LG Chem company, one of the world’s biggest producers of lithium-ion batteries. And so into your pocket, so to speak.
Pressure from Amnesty International and other NGOs has led the Western mining companies in the DRC to claim to try and control informal mining. Tech firms like Apple have also said they will make efforts to avoid sourcing batteries that use Congolese cobalt. But I have my doubts. First, while there are other sources of cobalt than the DRC, they are just as dubious – Russia and Morocco, for instance. Second, demand for cobalt is set to outstrip supply by a large factor. Cobalt demand will exceed 120,000 tonnes per annum in 2020, up from 93,950 tonnes in 2016. With the switch to electric cars, cobalt demand is expected to double over the next decade.
It is also the case that the methods used by Western mining firms in the DRC to reduce informal mining are highly suspect. They involve forcibly moving local communities or fencing them off from traditional farmland and water sources near the mines. Anyway, the huge strip mining, crushing and washing operations conducted by the big cobalt mining firms have a massive deleterious impact. The DRC has Africa’s largest rainforest, the second largest on the planet after the Amazon. This is under constant attack precisely because of mining operations, with around 1200 square miles being destroyed annually.
Sadly, there is little environmental regulation by the Congolese regime, which is an international by-word for corruption. Last year, Transparency International rated the Congo down at 166th out of 179 countries for corruption. Quite what the actual relationship is between the Western firms operating locally and the Congolese regime is open to question.
We live in a capitalist world where making a fast buck outweighs any environmental considerations. Better technology is no solution to environmental problems unless you change the underlying economic structure and its willingness to put profit before human wants. The excessive scale of CO2 emissions is a direct result not of the internal combustion engine per se but of the dynamic of the marketplace to over-produce in order to sell, sell, sell.
I agree wholeheartedly with the SNP Government’s commitment to a Green New Deal. But this has to represent more than virtue signalling. We might be reducing CO2 emissions in Scotland by driving more electric cars. Yet the resultant waste from more cobalt mining in the DRC pollutes rivers, the dust from the pulverized rock causes serious lung infections and the great Congo rainforest is fast disappearing. We need to change the system, not just the technology. Starting in Scotland.