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Climate change and lower carbon emissions is undoubtedly a major crisis that the world needs to tackle, indeed it is ranked as one of the top global threats by voters, according to a recent Pew Survey. While scientists globally and almost universally concur that man-made carbon emissions are impacting and accelerating the natural warming the planet goes through. Therefore, our political leaders have rightly started taking intense political action in order to move us towards a sustainable future that allows consumption while respecting and valuing our planet.

However, the march to Net Zero is not without a significant and tragic human cost. For instance, in the Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo) where recent journalistic efforts have shown extreme suffering and rampant exploitation in the pursuit of Cobalt, a necessary metal for production of electric rechargeable batteries used in many daily consumer goods, cars, smartphones, lights, storage batteries used by renewable energy. In his book Cobalt Red, author, modern-day slavery expert and human rights campaigner, Siddharth Kara first hand experiences and details how slavery, human suffering and exploitation is powering the rechargeable battery economy – Batteries that are necessary to reach Net Zero.

First Ivory, then Rubber and now Cobalt

As with many other African states during colonialism, the people of the Congo were subject to many crimes in the pursuit of profit. At the direction of King Leopold II of Belgium, the Congo Free State was formed in 1885 firstly, and falsely, with philanthropic intentions to uplift the local population and raise their quality of life. Tragically, the true intention was to export ivory and then later rubber, as rubber became a highly demanded substance, on a grand scale with the labour force as the native Congolese inhabitants who were compelled to deliver rubber quotas, punishable by death. Much has been documented on the tragedies directed by King Leopold II, such as mutilation, dismemberment, forced slavery, indentured servitude, and there are obvious similarities with present day mining for Cobalt.

An artisanal miner carries a sack of ore at the Shabara artisanal mine near Kolwezi, DRC

With Siddharth Kara’s extensive expose on cobalt mining in the Congo, we now have irrefutable evidence that the local inhabitants have had their village’s bulldozed, mother’s forcibly separated from their children and labourers, known as “Artisanal Miners”, effectively given no other choice but to mine cobalt with basic tools and no protective gear. An Artisanal Miner is an informal labourer who, according to the mining companies and top of the supply chain companies, such as Apple, Google and other technology manufacturers, make up a very small percentage of the cobalt extraction supply, however as Mr Kara’s report as well as reports from NGO’s operating in the region actually is likely to be 30-50%. Additionally, legally, mining companies in the region are not meant to allow Artisanal Miners to be working inside an industrial mining complex, which would typically use acid in order to break down the cobalt for refinement, whereas it seems common practice that the labourers are used extensively throughout many mining complexes.

An estimated 200,000 people are employed as Artisanal Miners throughout the DRC with little evidence they are given protective gear, paid fairly (estimated as $1-$2 per day) or operating in safe conditions. Furthermore, while young man would typically be thought of as an Artisanal Miner, there are many women and young girls forced into working at the mines with ample stories suggesting that they are being sexually exploited by other workers as well as the guards at the complexes. Clearly this is a growing human tragedy which begins to rival that of King Leopold’s Congo Free State. Given that the local Chinese companies, the national government and militia groups effectively operating as gangs, are preventing a full investigation into the practices at the mines it is likely the true scale of these tragic conditions is unknown.

Moving to a Clean Cobalt Future

While of course we must move towards a lower carbon future globally, we must, as believers in democracy and civilised morality, not allow and ignore exploitation when it is so plainly in sight. Certainly democratic institutions in European and Western nations have the ability to enact policies to legally encourage, and where necessary force, companies to follow better practices. As was seen with “Blood/Conflict Diamonds” over the last 20 years, action taken by Western nations can positively impact exploitative circumstances in Africa and other regions, however sadly the trade of Blood Diamonds continues. Though the challenges of Cobalt mining are multifaceted and are not just perpetuated by disparate groups, as is generally the case with Blood Diamonds.

Many and quite possibly the vast majority of Cobalt mining complexes in the Congo are controlled and operated by Chinese companies, a wider and indirectly related issue is many African states being financially indebted to China. These companies are not under the jurisdiction of Europe and usually are guided by Chinese CCP officials. While this per se is not bad, it is widely documented that the CCP does not consider human rights in the same manner as European politicians or citizens do. But as European and Western nations are the current majority of consumers of battery products and technologies, we clearly have leverage and a moral duty to ensure that we are consuming ethically and consciously.

Achieving Net Zero Responsibly

To achieve net zero, we need Cobalt mined from the Congo. This is an inescapable reality. But surely this must be achieved with compassion and without slave labour conditions for the Congolese. Perhaps we must accept more use of fossil fuels in the short-term to lower suffering and exploitation of inhabitants of developing countries. Additionally, many citizens and consumers of products using rechargeable batteries will not be aware of the suffering required to produce their products, so are we being lied to? Surely a truly participative and open democracy would be fair with all information, regardless of the inconvenience.At the very least, the European Commission can formally send an investigative team into the mines in the Congo and ascertain the truth and vindicate previous journalistic reports. With this legitimacy, the civilised nations can pressure the DRC’s government and Chinese mining companies to take immediate action against their exploitative practices and allow the Congolese to benefit from mining in their country for the first time, and hopefully not the last.