When, last week, I wrote that the biggest challenge in the wider adoption of electric vehicles was the extension of the charging network, I was guilty of only addressing the first world problem. For us, indeed, that is the case. However, there is another issue, one which goes to the heart of the matter, and is qualitatively of a far different order, and one which affects not only EVs but also all the other electrical and electronic devices we now take for granted - phones, laptops, tablets: everything that uses batteries to store electricity.
The problem is that batteries manufactured using current up-to-date technology require cobalt, and, although cobalt itself is - obviously - just a metal, unfortunately something of the order of 70% of it comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Now, we need to be careful here. There are major corporations mining cobalt in the Congo, and there is no suggestion that their mines are anything but well-run, well-regulated and show proper concerns for the welfare of their workers. However, there is another darker side to Congolese mining, and it has the cuddly name ‘artisanal mining’.
When I go to the bakery or the supermarket, I’m normally offered bread and ‘artisanal’ bread. The latter looks less factory-made, has nuts or raisins or all sorts of other goodies in it, normally costs a bit more and, frankly, is probably what most of us buy because it tastes better. It’s baked by artisan bakers in their bijou bakeries, normally locally - thus avoiding food miles - and makes us feel good about supporting local craftsmen (and women).
Sadly, though, simply applying the same name to some of the mining practices in the Congo doesn’t make them appealing in the same way. Artisanal mining is not cuddly, it’s got nothing to do with experts lovingly teasing a beautiful nugget of cobalt out of its parent seam. It’s a nasty, dangerous business, often using child (including pre-teen) labour to extract ore with nothing more than a pick, working in unsupported tunnels, with no safety measures, for a pittance. And when it rains - and we are talking central Africa here - it all becomes even more perilous. Death in those tunnels is only too frequent an occurrence, and even if you manage to escape that, most of your life is poisoned, because the tailings leach straight into the water-table. Still, on the bright side, it means we can all buy a new phone every year.
In the same way that the major mining companies do by and large behave correctly and responsibly, so it is probably fair to say that the consumers of cobalt - be they manufacturers of batteries or of products that use batteries (corporations like Apple, Panasonic, BMW, Tesla and so on) - are genuinely concerned to understand the origin of the cobalt in the products they use. It’s not easy, though; one pile of ore looks just like another. Just as an aside, I remember years ago when we were asked if we could operate financing for copper concentrate in the same way as we did for aluminium ingot, it never got off the ground, because the product was too homogenous - you couldn’t tell where one lot stopped and the next lot started. So genuinely to track it would probably need a team of people in Kolwezi watching every movement of ore; that would be difficult, given that threats of violence against anyone trying to photograph what goes on are rife.
We should be clear here that most of this stuff goes to China, because that’s where it gets processed into the chemical forms needed by the battery industry. So, to be frank, there would seem to be two possible layers of obfuscation here - first, in the Congo, where the origin can become muddied, and secondly in China, where attempting to differentiate between piles of ore going in to a production line is likely to be equally confusing. That’s the problem the consuming companies have to face. There are some doing sterling work in trying to provide traceability, but, to be honest, their efforts see more success in the west than in China; probably, political pressure is also needed.
So why write about this now? Well, first, Christina Lamb wrote a good piece about it in the Sunday Times this week; but I suspect that readers of the Times, Washington Post, FAZ, le Monde and other ‘broadsheets’ are probably aware, and are not really the target. That should be the Twitterati, Instagrammers and so on, who can’t live without the mobile; and, to be fair, people like me buying electric cars…….
Secondly, as I said above, political pressure….. yet looking at Twitter last week, what - apart from the Brexit/celeb news/and the like - was troubling a number of our politicians? That one of their number had - in a broadly sympathetic comment - referred to someone as a ‘coloured person’ instead of a ‘person of colour’ (nope, me neither, but then….). Cue outrage. Yeah, changing word order and missing a preposition; let’s be offended at that, all the while the children die in tunnels under Kolwezi.
First world outrage wins votes, dead Congolese don’t.