EVs and Cobalt Mining: Why Environmentalists Must Consider Justice Before Carbon

by Bridget Zhu

            Car-dependence is deeply entrenched in the American lifestyle––from our culture to our infrastructure.1 Rather than the much more difficult task of digging up those systemic roots, electric vehicles have become a favorite incremental band-aid solution for pro-climate decision makers concerned primarily with quickly curbing carbon emissions (without disrupting current economic and political systems).2 Global leaders at climate conferences such as the 2015 Paris Agreement and annual COP meetings frequently include greater investments in EVs in their pledges, which contributes to the vast majority of increasing global demand for cobalt (by up to 500% by 2050)3 with minimal inclusion, plans to redress, or even acknowledgement of the people suffering to produce the supply . The brutal forced and child labor at the base of the cobalt supply chain is all too often ignored for the convenience of climate proponents of EV policies, multi-billion-dollar tech companies that sell products with li-ion batteries, and even the everyday consumers of those tech products. 

            Almost all modern-day rechargeable consumer electronic devices, from iPhones to “disposable” vapes to EVs, contain varying sizes of lithium-ion batteries. Due to its unique material properties, cobalt is required for the cathode of these batteries. The amount of cobalt varies from 10 grams in an iPhone to a whopping 6-12 kg per car battery.4Increasing demand for electric vehicles (and storage for intermittent renewable energy) means millions more tons of cobalt will be required in the next decade.

            Why is this a problem? The Democratic Republic of Congo supplied 56% of the world’s cobalt in 2015, 72% in 2021, and is projected to supply 78% by 2030.5 Yet, rather than increased prosperity for Congolese people, violence funded by foreign mining companies (in order to obtain these valuable Congolese natural resources as cheaply as possible) has claimed millions of lives: out of 81.6 million Congolese people, 6.9 million have been internally displaced,626 million are starving, and gender violence runs rampant as an estimated 48 women are raped per hour.7 Despite hydropower dams disrupting livelihoods and taking land from local people at Inga, less than 14% of Congolese people have access to electricity because most of it is bought by mining companies.8 Education is poorly funded and requires payments that the vast majority of Congolese families can’t afford, hence over two-thirds of children along the copper belt are not in school9 and 35,000 children work in mines to support their families instead.10 Horrific first-hand accounts from 2023 show children being sold in bags, miners buried alive,11 and a man who set himself on fire to call attention to the genocide.12

About 30% of cobalt is produced from artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM), which refers to the use of rudimentary tools by people working under grueling conditions, as opposed to machinery used in industrial mining. Since ASM is informal and unregulated, risk of injury, illness, and death are assumed by the laborers. Miners are paid by piece, usually amounting to a meager $1-2 per day. Webs of tunnels, dug by hand and sometimes up to 1 km deep, frequently collapse, and accidents are rarely acknowledged or accurately reported by mining companies.13

Because of the convolution in the supply chain, it is nearly impossible to separate artisanally mined and industrially mined cobalt. Obscurity is aided by corruption of Congolese political leaders and, due to sparse electrification, the export of almost all ore to China to be refined.14

Thus, the PR statements from trillion-dollar tech companies that promise a “zero-tolerance policy against child labor” (Samsung15), “responsible sourcing practices” (Tesla16), or to “safeguard the well-being of the millions of people touched by our supply chain” (Apple17) are largely empty––there is no evidence that third-party audits are trustworthy or even exist:

“There is an agenda to promote a false picture of the conditions here.” Organizations that supposedly assess supply chains and monitor for child labor “tell the international community about their programs in Congo and how the cobalt is clean. […] Actually, this makes the situation worse because the companies will say ‘GBA assures us the situation is good. RMI says the cobalt is clean.’ […] Everyone believes them, nothing changes” (Philippe, Congolese guide in Cobalt Red18).

            Measures such as increasing EV and Li-ion battery production, taken to prevent a global environmental crisis, cannot be implemented at the expense of people suffering in one of the worst present-day humanitarian crises. Kyle Whyte, an Indigenous scholar and member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, warns against the weaponization of climate urgency as a tool to continue to violate the consent of the people that have been subjugated to centuries of colonial injustice.19 Using urgency to push forward “solutions” proposed by the very same people and systems responsible for colonial violence and climate change has, and will continue to, perpetuate environmental injustice.20

Instead, climate change solutions must go hand-in-hand with anti-colonial and anti-capitalist solutions toward national and global racial justice. Such solutions have existed: Patrice Lumumba was the first democratically elected prime minister of the DRC in 1960. He envisioned a future for a free Congo in which they rejected foreign exploitation by trading their valuable natural resources on their own terms, and then reinvesting into education, healthcare, infrastructure, and overall prosperity for the Congolese people. However, afraid that cobalt and the riches of the Congo would fall into Soviet hands, the US CIA, UN, and Belgium conspired to overthrow Lumumba. He was tortured and assassinated by Belgian officials in January 1961. These same Western powers have then propped up corrupt puppet dictators like the Kabilas in order to continue profiting off of cheap Congolese labor and natural resources.21 But if powerful policymakers, engineers, economists, and environmentalists include Congolese people in decisions and at global climate conferences, and if intentional violent military destabilization is prohibited; then Lumumba’s vision remains inspirational and achievable for the DRC as well as the Pan-African movement as a whole.22

As for measures that are more achievable short-term and in the American policy realm, some regulatory progress could include: mandatory recycling and materials recovery (which could replace up to half of critical minerals mining in the next two decades)23 and better public transit to reduce car dependence.24 Policymakers must use caution when looking for alternatives to mining for cobalt in the Congo (such as Australian cobalt, deep sea mining, or mining for copper as a replacement mineral) because they do not address the root causes of oppressive extraction and usually reallocate the burden onto different oppressed people and ecosystems in other parts of the world.25 And of course, instead of denying the existence of cobalt miners, corporations must be held to real supply chain accountability that forces them to treat artisanal miners with the same humanity as their tech employees.


  1. Mukherji, Henry. “Transportation without Pollution: How America Can Ditch Gasoline by Henry Mukherji.” US Environmental Policy, 10 Mar. 2021, https://blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/env212/transportation-without-pollution-how-america-can-ditch-gasoline-by-henry-mukherji/.
  2. Hua, Rachel. “Electric Vehicles: A Solution to America’s Car Emissions Problem by Rachel Hua.” US Environmental Policy, 16 Apr. 2020, https://blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/env212/electric-vehicles-a-solution-to-americas-car-emissions-problem-by-rachel-hua/
  3. McKinsey & Company. Battery 2030+: Resilient, Sustainable, and Circular. 2023 from https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/automotive-and-assembly/our-insights/battery-2030-resilient-sustainable-and-circular
  4. Turcheniuk K, Bondarev D, Singhal V, Yushin G. Ten years left to redesign lithium-ion batteries. Nature. 2018 Jul;559(7715):467-470. doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05752-3. PMID: 30046087.
  5. See citation 3 above.
  6. “A Record 6.9 Million People Are Internally Displaced in DR Congo, Says UN.” France 24, 30 Oct. 2023, https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20231030-record-6-9-million-internally-displaced-in-dr-congo-un-says
  7. Adetunji, Jo. “Forty-Eight Women Raped Every Hour in Congo, Study Finds.” The Guardian, 12 May 2011. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/may/12/48-women-raped-hour-congo.
  8. Kruger, Ruth, et al. “Energy Justice, Hydropower and Grid Systems in the Global South.” Energy Justice Across Borders, Springer International Publishing, 2020.
  9. Kara, Siddharth. Cobalt Red: How the Blood of Congo Powers Our Lives. St. Martin’s Press, 2022.
  10. Schwartz, Franklin W., et al. “A Review of the Scope of Artisanal and Small‐Scale Mining Worldwide, Poverty, and the Associated Health Impacts.” GeoHealth, vol. 5, no. 1, Jan. 2021, p. e2020GH000325. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1029/2020GH000325
  11. Tunnel Collapse Rescue. UtusanTV, 2023, https://www.tiktok.com/@utusantvofficial/video/7215910097199877381?_t=8iDSfqifMyI&_r=1.
  12. Welch, Carley. “Man Sets Himself on Fire While Holding Sign ‘Stop the Genocide in Congo.’” The Messenger, 15 Nov. 2023, https://themessenger.com/news/man-sets-himself-on-fire-while-holding-sign-stop-the-genocide-in-congo.
  13. See citation 9 above.
  14. See citation 9 above.
  15. Samsung Electronics and Partners Kick Off “Cobalt for Development” Project to Promote Responsible Artisanal Cobalt Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 19 Sept. 2019, https://news.samsung.com/global/samsung-electronics-and-partners-kick-off-cobalt-for-development-project-to-promote-responsible-artisanal-cobalt-mining-in-the-democratic-republic-of-congo.
  16. Tesla Conflict Minerals Report. 31 Dec. 2018. https://www.tesla.com/sites/default/files/about/legal/2018-conflict-minerals-report.pdf
  17. Apple CEO Tim Cook on What It Takes to Run the World’s Largest Company | Dua Lipa: At Your Service. BBC, 17 Nov. 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXQYO8poXC8
  18. See citation 9 above.
  19. Whyte, Kyle. Climate Action at the Speed of Consent. 7 Nov. 2023, Duke University.
  20. Whyte, Kyle. “Way Beyond the Lifeboat: An Indigenous Allegory of Climate Justice.” Climate Futures: Reimagining Global Climate Justice, University of California Press, 2017.
  21. See citation 9 above.
  22. Lumumba, Patrice. “(1959) PATRICE LUMUMBA, ‘AFRICAN UNITY AND NATIONAL INDEPENDENCE.’” Blackpast, 11 Aug. 2009, https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/1959-patrice-lumumba-african-unity-and-national-independence/.
  23. Riofrancos, Thea. “Shifting Mining From the Global South Misses the Point of Climate Justice.” Foreign Policy, 7 Feb. 2022, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/02/07/renewable-energy-transition-critical-minerals-mining-onshoring-lithium-evs-climate-justice/.
  24. For example: Horvath, Hazel. “Transportation Justice in Portland.” US Environmental Policy, 25 Mar. 2019, https://blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/env212/transportation-justice-in-portland/.
  25. Jennings, Lydia. Cultural Assessments and Tribal Engagement. 25 Oct. 2023, Duke University.

One thought on “EVs and Cobalt Mining: Why Environmentalists Must Consider Justice Before Carbon

  1. Bridget,
    Cobalt mining is something that I’ve always heard generally about as a negative consequence of things like renewable energy and electric vehicles, but I never learned the specifics of what was actually happening in the Congo. You gave an incredibly thoughtful explanation of a terribly sad and unjust state of affairs. I don’t know the right way for Americans to go about aiding in making cobalt mining more ethical, particularly since we were so responsible for making it so terrible in the first place by killing their prime minister. I don’t know Congolese politics well enough to speak knowledgeably on this point, so I think the only action I can think of that average Americans can and must take to affect change is to demand it from big American corporations like Samsung and Tesla. I think if that were to happen on a large scale, maybe those corporations would be able to put all of their resources into improving mining conditions and more generally improving living conditions in the Congo. In terms of material recycling, I just read a pretty interesting article about Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers who had developed new technology that makes recycling batteries much easier. I think it’s still pretty early in development so I don’t think it will play a role for a little while, but if there were an easy way for people to go about recycling batteries, I think it would help a lot in improving the conditions as well. I particularly liked your point about how turning to other sources is a non-solution. I agree that it doesn’t do anything to solve the crisis we helped cause in the Congo, and that taking away economic opportunity from their nation is not the correct solution, particularly given how bad things already are there.

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