Cobalt Mining – The Hidden Dark Side of Renewables

By Luke Stevenson – 

A global shift towards sustainable activities has contributed to more people owning electric cars. A single lithium car battery for electric cars use 14kg of cobalt, and since the price of lithium batteries has dropped by 97% since 1991, the demand for cobalt has risen exponentially, with many believing electric cars and lithium batteries will become the primary technology very soon [1]. Most people, including you, probably view the rise of electric cars positively, however, we will focus on the numerous impacts of cobalt, related as a wider picture to renewables, on the producers of the supply chain that most overlook.

Figure 1 – Tunnel for cobalt ore by Fairphone, CC-BY via Flickr

Sovacool (2019) researched the impacts of intense cobalt production on miners in Congo – addressing the problems from renewables, interviewing 48 individuals from different sectors of the mining industry (diggers, sorters, owners). Some respondents commented on some of the benefits of working in the mines – including “employment for tens of thousands of people”, and how the income has allowed communities to build schools and water stations [2]. Figure 1 shows an example of a cobalt mine tunnel.

Sovacool found much more risks and problems from respondents, who stated that there is minimal to no food and water, frequent accidents – like landslide hazards that have a death rate of 0.4%-0.5% in the Katanga region [3], as well as environmental problems like air pollution affecting the health of miners/locals. “It is only corrupt politicians who are getting rich”, one respondent said, highlighting the regional instability in the area [2] – this can lead to income inequalities, like miners receiving as little as £2.60 a day [4], alongside violence between industrial and artisanal (traditional) miners due to security problems and absences of resources in artisanal mines [2]. Children as young as seven have also been found in the mines [5], a problem caused by poor income when children often work in unsafe conditions for their families.

So, what are companies doing about unethical treatment? Unfortunately, not much. For instance, Tesla struck a deal with Glencore in 2020 to ensure cobalt demand is met for new plants in China and Germany [6]. Glencore is known to put miners on subcontractors (low contract/no contract hire who often mistreat workers with low income) so they can avoid responsibility for any problems in the mines [4]. Again, it’s often the case of the rich here taking advantage of the poor.

Though, some companies have started implementing policies aimed to reduce poor treatment of workers; groups like Amnesty International and the United Nations have raised attention to traceability and ensuring their mines are not sources of illegal/child labour [7,8], but there isn’t certainty that mines companies will change.

Then what might we expect to happen? Sovacool’s research determined that these problems are usually caused by regional instability/corruption leading to poor income, combined with poor assessment or even a lack of care from first-world companies [2]. To conclude, since it may be difficult to challenge unethical treatment if companies take advantage of income, especially with the exponential demand as renewables increase, unethical cobalt mining won’t diminish anytime soon.

References and further reading

  1. Castelvecchi, D. (2021) Electric cars and batteries: how will the world produce enough? com. [online] [Accessed 27 November 2021].
  2. Sovacool, B.K. (2019) The precarious political economy of cobalt: Balancing prosperity, poverty, and brutality in artisanal and industrial mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Extractive Industries and Society6(3), pp.915-939
  3. Tsurukawa, N., Prakash, S. and Manhart, A. (2011) Social impacts of artisanal cobalt mining in Katanga, Democratic Republic of Congo. Öko-Institut eV, Freiburg.
  4. Pattisson, P. (2021) ‘Like slave and master’: DRC miners toil for 30p an hour to fuel electric cars, The Guardian. [online] [Accessed 1 December 2021].
  5. Amnesty International (2016). This is what we die for”. Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo power the global trade in cobalt. [online] London: Amnesty International (p.28). Available at: [Accessed 2 December 2021].
  6. Bloomberg News (2020). Tesla strikes deal to buy cobalt from Glencore for EV plants. COM. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 December 2021].
  7. Katz-Lavigne, S. (2019). Demand for Congo’s cobalt is on the rise: So is the scrutiny of mining practices. The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage.
  8. Hilson, G., Hilson, A. and McQuilken, J. (2016). Ethical minerals: Fairer trade for whom?. Resources policy49(pp.232-247).