Are you ready to charge into the future? Governments and car manufacturers are touting electric vehicles (EVs) as the wonder antidote to climate change. But, in the future, how many electric cars will roll down on roads? Well, this is an unanswerable question. However, the sure thing is that EV market will grow at a fast pace over the coming years due to heightened environmental concerns, greater availability of models, increased cost competitiveness with conventional gas vehicles, and improved vehicle ranges. Just in the United States, the electric car sales have increased from a meager 0.25% of total car sales to around 5% in the last decade.
Yet, there is more to it. As per a report authored by Providence College Professor Thea Riofrancos and scholars at University of California, Davis, the automobile is intertwined with climate, health, and social outcomes. EVs may eliminate tailpipe emissions, they nevertheless interact with urban design, pedestrian safety, and the socioeconomics of mobility in ways that aren’t necessarily beneficial. While EVs are essential to reducing carbon emissions, their production require a significant human and environmental cost. EVs require six times the mineral input, by weight, of conventional vehicles, excluding steel and aluminum.
Use of Cobalt in Electric Vehicles for Energy Transition
So what’s the catch here? To comprehend this, let’s go to ‘The Democratic Republic of the Congo’, the second-largest country in Africa. Congo is home to more than 50% of the world’s cobalt reserves. It has an estimated 3.6 million tons of cobalt available for extraction. China is the biggest investor owning 15 cobalt mines in Congo. Cobalt, a vivid deep blue mineral, might sound bizarre to you because it wasn’t important at all. Suddenly it’s in spotlight and we’re obsessed why this is so?
You might have guessed where we’re heading! Cobalt has become essential because of the energy transition. EVs are now the largest driver of cobalt demand. They promise a clean energy transition amid the ongoing climate crisis and rely on cobalt for electric car batteries.
Unlike lithium which was super important earlier, cobalt is more trustworthy in the sense that it contributes to higher energy density in lithium-ion batteries and accordingly translates into longer driving ranges and improved performance of EVs. Since there’s cut-throat competition among electric car manufacturers, therefore these marginal perfections provide manufacturers the competitive advantage.
Mining of Cobalt
Let’s dig more into the mining thing. More than 50% of the world’s cobalt comes from Congo. But, it’s not about quantity only. Congo’s mineral ores tend to contain about 3% cobalt, compared to the global average of 0.6% to 0.8%. As electric cars putting pressure on cobalt demand, global production of cobalt has been increasing rapidly and it has been doubled in the last decade. Production rates have risen even faster in Congo. A decade ago it was mining half of the world’s cobalt and now it produces more than two-third.
The question is who is going to control the supply chain of this precious and finite resource in the future? Cobalt is also part of lithium-ion batteries used in mobiles, laptops, tablets, bluetooth headphones, and electric toothbrush. It’s also used as catalysts within the oil and gas industry.
Cobalt – A Precious and Finite Natural Resource
You might think that with so many natural resources, Congo must be one of the world’s richest countries. Unfortunately, Congo is one of the world’s poorest countries. More than 60% people live on less than $2 per day. 80% people even don’t have access to electricity, or safe drinking water.
The economic situation of Congo is horrible because its natural wealth has been plundered for years by the outsiders through their proxies. For instance, Congo’s former President Mobutu Sese Seko’s rule from 1965 to 1997 was an appalling era eclipsed with economic exploitation and corruption, which contributed to human rights violations, uncontrolled inflation, ballooning debt, and massive currency devaluations.
Anyways, there are two forms of cobalt mining in Congo, Industrial mining and Artisanal mining. Industrial mines are typically owned by international corporations. Working conditions are terribly poor there, but are nonetheless run as legal operations with some safeguards in place.
In Artisanal mining, there is no formal employment. Individuals go out to mine minerals on their own. Around 10% to 20% of Congo’s cobalt is extracted from these Artisanal mines.
The Risks Associated with Cobalt Mining
Cobalt mining is extremely dangerous. Unlike some other minerals such as Gold, cobalt deposits can be 70 to 150 meters below the surface. It means moving entire blocks of rock at one time and there’s always risk of mines collapsing. Injuries and fatalities from collapsing mines, or tumbling rocks are common.
People do this back-breaking work for more than 12 hours a day. They’re exposed to chemical pollutants that lead to respiratory problems. Their eyes are often red or discolored due to exposure to toxic materials.
Child labor is common. Families have to pay themselves for schooling of their kids due to lack of public funding. Schooling can cost more than $5 per month. This doesn’t sound much, but it’s unaffordable for many families living in abysmal poverty. Children often need to work to bring in vital income.
Sustainable Green Revolution
After knowing all of this, do you think that transition to EVs for curbing carbon emissions for sustainable green revolution; is the same old story of child labor, deforestation, contaminated rivers, power resource race, and general human exploitation?
You might have a clean and net zero carbon world, in your imagination, where everyone is living in harmony, but the real world is different! It can have human rights’ abuses, exploitation, and power games, but obviously in new ways.
So what can be done? One option is to get rid of cobalt in batteries. Tesla has made a move to cobalt-free batteries. Cobalt-free iron-phosphate batteries are also cheaper than lithium-ion batteries.
Sodium-ion batteries are also cobalt-free and entering the race, spearheaded by Chinese manufacturers. These batteries are making their way into the European markets.
Nonetheless, cobalt is very different from fossil fuels. It’s used in refineries as a catalyst for desulphurization of fuel. Since catalysts only help with reactions occur, therefore cobalt isn’t part of fuel we buy. Hence, it doesn’t spew from the exhaust for entering into the environment.
The catalysts in refineries are usually recyclable and refiners have been recycling spent catalysts into fresh catalysts for years. Cobalt’s recycling can be improved to reduce adverse impacts and need for mining in the first place.
Undoubtedly, fossil fuels need to be phased out, and electric cars are an integral part of a greener future. Nevertheless, drastic improvements and steps are required to ensure that energy revolution is truly clean and fair for everyone.