June 14, 2023 | The Washington Times

Blood of the Congo 

The price Africans are paying so we can have better batteries
June 14, 2023 | The Washington Times

Blood of the Congo 

The price Africans are paying so we can have better batteries

Electric vehicles are marvelous in many ways but if you think they’re “green and clean” you haven’t done your homework. Not to worry: Siddharth Kara has done it for you.

The author of three previous books on modern slavery, and a senior fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, he’s also one hell of an investigative reporter.

His most recent book is “Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives.” To research it, he made multiple journeys into militia-controlled areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the central African country where 75 percent of the world’s supply of cobalt is mined.

“This rare, silver metal is an essential component to almost every lithium-ion rechargeable battery made today,” Mr. Kara writes. “The Katanga region in the southeast corner of the Congo holds more reserves of cobalt than the rest of the planet combined.”

So, the Congo must be among the world’s richest nations, right? No, the Congo is among the world’s poorest. More on that in a moment. First a smidgeon of science.

The lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs) require large amounts of cobalt to increase their “energy density,” the ratio of mass to energy. Only “lithium-ion chemistries using cobalt cathodes are currently able to deliver maximum energy density while maintaining thermal stability,” Mr. Kara explains.

As a result, global demand for cobalt is now enormous and expected to grow explosively. Twenty-four nations have pledged to eliminate the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2040. They are using subsidies, regulations, and mandates to propel this transition – whether most sellers and buyers of cars like it or not.

Cobalt can be mined using machines that run on diesel, a fact often ignored when EVs are called “emissions-free.” But Mr. Kara’s focus is on the more than 30 percent of cobalt mining in the Congo that is “artisanal” – a euphemism for “hundreds of thousands of people engaged in the feverish excavation of cobalt in medieval conditions.”

More specifically, Mr. Kara surreptitiously visited numerous mines where cobalt was being extracted “by the blistered hands of peasants using picks, shovels, and rebar” in “hazardous pits and tunnels.”

His investigations revealed that cobalt mining in the Congo involves “slavery, child labor, forced labor, debt bondage, human trafficking, hazardous and toxic working conditions, pathetic wages, injury and death, and incalculable environmental harm.”

One local researcher told Mr. Kara: “The mining companies have polluted the entire region. All the crops, animals and fish stocks are contaminated.”

No one accepts “responsibility at all for the negative consequences of cobalt mining in the Congo,” Mr. Kara writes, “not the Congolese government, not foreign mining companies, not battery manufacturers, and certainly not mega-cap tech and car companies.”

He’s not wrong but, I’d argue, he doesn’t sufficiently emphasize Beijing’s role in the exploitation of the Congo’s resources and people.

Roughly 90% of the Congo’s mining exports go to China where they are processed, and where batteries are manufactured for sale around the world. The energy source for this processing and manufacturing: mostly coal, the most polluting hydrocarbon.

How did Beijing achieve its dominant position in the Congo? Mr. Kara observed that some Congolese political leaders, “have become scandalously rich auctioning the country’s mining concessions while tens of millions of Congolese people suffer extreme poverty, food insecurity, and civil strife.”

Most of the “Chinese-owned mining sites” he visited “were secured either by a military force called the FARDC or the elite Republican Guard. Other industrial sites and many informal mining areas are guarded by an array of armed units, including the Congolese National Police, the mining police, private military contractors, and informal militias. …Perceived troublemakers can be arrested, tortured, or worse.”

As suggested above, the demand for batteries made with cobalt is being driven by Western industrial policies meant to “address” climate change which, we are told, is an “emergency.”

Even if that were true – I’m among those convinced it’s not – replacing cars powered by gasoline with cars powered by batteries is no solution. If every internal combustion engine in America were to be traded in for an EV tomorrow the impact on global warming would be insignificant. Two reasons: As noted, EV’s are not actually emissions-free, and China continues to build coal-fired power stations at a frantic pace: two per week last year alone.

China has market dominance not just of cobalt but of all the strategic minerals necessary to produce EVs, including lithium, copper, and nickel. Indeed, China already has more market dominance in these minerals than OPEC has in oil. And a Chinese company, BYD, is selling more EVs globally than Tesla. Let me stress: China is manufacturing EVs largely with power generated by burning coal.

The national security implications of all this should be obvious: The U.S. is becoming more dependent on China – or more precisely on the Chinese Communist Party – for energy. Did we learn nothing from Germany’s misguided decision to depend on Vladimir Putin’s natural gas?

On top of that, the Western war on hydrocarbons is exacerbating poverty in the Global South.  More than 500 million people in Africa do not have electricity.

In the Congo, fewer than one person in ten is rich enough to have an electric light or fan in his home, much less a computer.

If you believe that number will increase over the coming decades thanks to windmills, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, and EVs, you haven’t done your homework.

I’ll help, starting with two simple questions: Are there policies that could alleviate the intense human suffering and environmental destruction in the Congo with no impact on the global climate? Yes. Are such policies being implemented by Chinese, American, European, or U.N. leaders? No.

Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times. Follow him on Twitter @CliffordDMay. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.