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The human cost of electric car batteries

Global move towards electric vehicles rides on the back of exploiting poor African workers in DRC

The world is racing to replace the internal combustion engines that have traditionally powered our cars and trucks with battery-powered electric engines and the European Union will ban the sale of internal combustion engines by 2035.

The ambition is to achieve a world with net-zero carbon dioxide emissions but, unfortunately, the development of electric car batteries to date has depended to a large extent on the exploitation of very poor African miners.

Almost every rechargeable electrical device in the world, including the electric car battery, is powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries whose performance is enhanced and stabilised by incorporating the metal cobalt. One advantage of using cobalt is that the battery is much less likely to catch fire. Electric vehicles overtook smartphones and PCs in 2021 as the world’s main source of demand for cobalt, consuming 59,000 tonnes of it — 34 per cent of total demand.

Research is ongoing to produce effective batteries that are not reliant on cobalt, but success here would be a double-edged sword for Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo has up to 70 per cent of the world’s accessible cobalt reserves. Most cobalt mining companies in Democratic Republic of Congo are Chinese but there is also a western-owned mining sector. African miners report that working conditions in the Chinese mines are much worse than in the western mines. There are also claims of racist abuse as detailed by the New York Times in February 2022. Western mining companies are subject to western-style regulation of working conditions but instances of bribery and human rights abuses have also occurred in these firms.


One big problem in Democratic Republic of Congo is “artisanal” mining by independent subsistence miners, not officially employed by the mining companies. These miners dig out rocks containing the precious metal by hand, crush and wash them and sell the metal for pennies to international traders. Up to 20 per cent of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s cobalt is produced by artisanal mining. Chinese companies buy a lot of artisanal cobalt.

Between 150,000 and 200,000 artisanal miners work cobalt deposits in Democratic Republic of Congo, including 80,000 children, with more than a million others economically dependent on their work. Each miner earns between $0.75 and $3 a day. The average annual income in Democratic Republic of Congo is only $800. More than 80 per cent of the people live on less than $1.25 a day, the threshold for extreme poverty.

Democratic Republic of Congo achieved independence in 1960 but … the country has since been ravaged by wars and bad government

Working conditions for artisanal miners are very poor but they continue with this work because there is so little alternative employment. The work is labour-intensive and highly dangerous — mineshafts collapse, injuries are very common, exposure to pollution and toxic materials is much greater than in the formal mining sector, and there is little or no personal protective clothing. Recently 15 people died when an artisanal mining shaft collapsed.

Research is ongoing to produce effective batteries that are not reliant on cobalt, but success here would be a double-edged sword for Democratic Republic of Congo. A big drop in worldwide demand for cobalt would leave hundreds of thousands of poor Africans with no income, condemned to live in a landscape ravaged by mining and unable to support agriculture.

The worldwide drive to replace petrol/diesel-powered cars/trucks with electric vehicles rides on the back of the severe exploitation of poor African workers in Democratic Republic of Congo. This is well known but little has been done about it. However, a Democratic Republic of Congo state-backed Enterprise Generale du Cobalt (EGC) was recently established and controls the artisanal cobalt sector with monopoly rights to buy, process and market the material. The plan is to restore respectable Democratic Republic of Congo mining standards and to sell cobalt that is unstained by human rights abuses.

Only time will tell how effective the EGC will be. The Democratic Republic of Congo government is dogged by the most severe problems and has only limited enforcement reach. Frequent wars and illegal mining by armed groups greatly weaken the country’s ability to utilise its massive natural resources.

Democratic Republic of Congo achieved independence in 1960 but centuries of exploitative colonisation had left the indigenous people and their institutions in a very poor state and the country has since been ravaged by wars and bad government. Despite being the second largest country in Africa, with a land area the size of western Europe and endowed with fantastically rich natural resources (including copper, gold, diamonds, cobalt, coltan, platinum and oil) the country is among the poorest in the world.

Democratic Republic of Congo’s massive natural resource base, which should be the country’s greatest asset, has actually been its greatest curse; attracting the worst kind of greedy exploitation at the expense of the ordinary citizens. It is high time it was used to benefit these citizens.

  • William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC