We must keep our wheels turning
That our oil supplies are dwindling, and burning fuel pollutes our air is not in question; yet we demand that our wheeled lifestyle goes on unhindered. We have been promised that as long as our wheels keep turning, all will be well.
We have decided that oil is bad for us, so we need an alternative motive power. What could be better than electricity? Clean, easy to access, non- polluting. We can use electricity to drive ourselves into a bright clean future with no adverse effects on ourselves or our environment.
But our drive to electrification has shifted our environmental problems elsewhere. Electric vehicles need batteries. Big batteries. And batteries need cobalt, and right now our car batteries are consuming around 100,000 tonnes of cobalt annually. Demand for it has grown by 13%p.a. for the last ten years, and is still rising.
And the biggest source of cobalt? Africa, with half the world’s supply sourced in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The price of cobalt,at $80,000 a tonne, is forecast to double in the next five years.
It is the latest source of energy to be turned into cash, and it has been estimated that between 20% and 30% (according to Amnesty International) of that total comes from artisanal and small scale miners working by hand. This involves digging rough shafts to extract cobalt ore in a desperate scramble to get at it by any means possible.
Such working practices and primitive extraction methods cannot employ safe systems of production, and commonly employ child labour. At present cobalt production is not covered by US labour laws that ban the use of minerals extracted in this way. One cannot imagine the current administration making changes to this law a top priority.
Amnesty International asserts that almost half of the 28 largest companies using cobalt, including Microsoft, Renault and China’s Huawei, did not exercise even minimal compliance with international standards of due diligence on cobalt mining safety. Tesla and BMW also needed to do more to disclose the sources of their cobalt.
As more auto manufacturers recognise the approaching end of oil for transport usage, the move to battery technology is inevitable and more battery factories will be built. By 2020, North American cobalt consumption is expected to be 15% of world total.
Volkswagen plans to construct a series of battery factories around the world to supply necessary motive power for projected electric vehicles. Other vehicle manufacturers will follow suit. China in particular sees EV manufacture as the 21st century opportunity to grab the world lead in vehicle production in the same way the USA did it in the 20thc.
There is no documentation in the cobalt supply streams disclosing what efforts, if any, have been undertaken to ensure that cobalt is not extracted using child labour. It is sold through unregulated ad hoc markets. Scrutiny is almost impossible in a country as vast as the DRC, where desperate poverty and unemployment drives an opportunistic need to earn money from any source under any conditions.
But all this is not new.
We think our motives are more civilised than those of a century or two ago, but they are not.
The same ‘backyard mining’ existed in England and elsewhere a hundred years ago
The basic premise of our industrialised infrastructure and civilisation is that we must extract minerals from the earth at an ever increasing rate to provide the motive power to keep our wheels turning.
It used to be coal to feed steam engines, now it’s cobalt to drive electric engines. In terms of perceived result, there is no material difference between the two. As long as we have the means to do so, our lifestyle must be preserved at all costs. If we fail, our civilisation falls apart. Everything depends on the power of our wheeled transport systems. Without it we return to the economics of the farmcart and the sailing ship.
Cheap power has always come at a price since the industrial revolution drove children into the horrors of unstable pitshafts to extract coal.
In our modern era, if that means that we must continue to extract minerals from deep underground to keep going, then so be it.
We do not see ragged child workers standing next to the charging stations, any more than our Victorian forebears saw ragged mining children standing next to blazing fireplaces. The new breed of mining children are 6000 miles away, conveniently out of sight and mind.
But at least we can console ourselves that our shiny new electric cars leave no pollution.
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