Cobalt is a chemical element with the symbol Co and atomic number 27.
It is a metal used in many different industrial, commercial and military purposes, but primarily in lithium-ion batteries and the manufacture of magnetic, wear-resistant and high-strength alloys. Until 2018 most of the cobalt was used for mobile device batteries; one more recent application is rechargeable batteries for electric cars. This industry has increased its demand for cobalt five-fold, making it urgent to find new raw materials in more stable areas of the world.
It would seem that cobalt’s popularity and the green agenda go hand in hand.
While cobalt is ranked as a critical mineral in some countries (USA, Japan, the Republic of Korea, The United Kingdom and EU countries), the Democratic Republic of the Congo has plenty of it and accounts for more than 50% of the world’s production. However, Congo doesn’t have any electric cars, even though those rechargeable battery electrodes are made of cobalt from the Congolese Copperbelt. On the other hand, Norway leads in electric vehicle (EV) adoption, made with the cobalt from Congo, of course. Ok, maybe Congolese have a lot less money than the Norwegians: (Norway’s GDP per capita in 2021 is $91.500, while in Congo GDP per capita is $420), but they have some numbers far higher than Norway they can “brag” about, for example, they are 236.5 times more likely to die during childbirth.
- In Norway, approximately 2.0 women per 100.000 births died during labor in 2017, while in Congo, 473.0 women died.
- Congolese children are 25.8 times more likely to die during infancy.
- In Norway, approximately 2.5 children die before they reach the age of one, according to the data in 2020, and in Congo, on the other hand, 64.5 children.
According to the latest human development index (HDI) ranking, Norway is still in the lead before Switzerland, Ireland and others, while Congo is at the bottom, facing a lack of access to healthcare, low incomes, thus poverty and low life expectancies. Even so, Norway cannot boast that it has cyborgs walking through its clean environment, unlike Congo. People in Congo are full of toxic metals; that is why ~3.2 million birth defect-related disabilities kill 300.000 newborns every year. The rate of congenital disabilities in this African country is estimated at 71 per 1.000 children, making the DRC rank highest regionally and among the highest in the world.
Compared to Norwegians, Congolese live 21.1 years less. The average life expectancy in Norway is 82 years (80 years for men, 84 years for women) in 2020, while in Congo, that number is 61 years (59 years for men, 63 years for women). At least they don’t have obesity problems. In 2016, 23.1% of adults in Norway were overweight compared to Congo, where that number is 6.7%. Some call it hunger.
But we shouldn’t worry about the miners in Congo digging cobalt without any safety measures in the dark underground tunnels so the Norwegians, for example, can buy their electric cars. According to the World Bank, they are significantly better off than other people in DRC, where three-quarters of the country’s population lives on less than two dollars a day. In comparison, miners can make 2.7 – 3.3 USD per day.
One question remains open: if digging cobalt in Congo’s mines was compliant with the Norwegian standards, in other words expensive, would the companies still be interested in the go green agenda?
We are not saying that life in Norway should be different, but that Congolese children deserve at least a similar life to the Norwegian and not be used as child labor.
If it interests you to “dig” a little bit more into this subject, you can watch the short documentary Toxic Cost of Going Green. Reporter Jamal Osman travels to Kolwezi, a city dependent on cobalt, where residents are employed by large multinational companies or work as artisanal miners. We meet the men who dig down in the dark, weaving, airless tunnels to extract cobalt for as little as $150 per month. But is the paycheck worth the health risks that doctors have uncovered?