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Electromobility and Child Labor – The Whole Truth About Cobalt Mining!

While we enjoy the benefits of the latest technologies, children in Africa are risking their lives to provide crucial materials for our favorite gadgets. In this article, we outline the picture of this story, which questions the actions of the world's biggest tech players. Is it justified?

While we enjoy the benefits of the latest technologies, children in Africa are risking their lives to provide crucial materials for our favorite gadgets. In this article, we outline the picture of this story, which questions the actions of the world's biggest tech players. Is it justified?

Picture of Marcin Świder
Marcin Świder

7 September 2023

The whole truth about cobalt mining!
In this article:

Cobalt: A Fundamental Element of Modern Technologies

Cobalt is a metal of crucial importance for modern technologies. It is essential for the production of lithium-ion batteries that power most electronic devices, from smartphones to electric cars. With the increasing demand for batteries, the demand for cobalt is also rising. According to last year’s estimates by the European Commission, the demand for this resource is projected to grow by 7-13% annually in the next decade, especially in the electromobility sector. 

Over 60% of globally mined cobalt goes into lithium-ion batteries, with over one-third being used in electric cars. The remaining portion is used in the metallurgical industry (14%) and participates in the refinement of crude oil and other chemical processes (22%).

The largest cobalt deposits are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (45.8%), Canada (18.3%), and Indonesia (7.8%). Congo is also the leading producer of this metal, accounting for 72.8% of global production. 

The Secrets of a Valuable Resource: The Dark Side of Cobalt Mining in Congo

However, the extraction of this valuable resource hides a dark side. Many mines in Congo operate in extremely difficult conditions, despite employing about 12 million people, which is over 13% of the country’s population. Unfortunately, many of these individuals are children. Although in the DRC, children aged 15 and older can legally perform light work, many of them work in cobalt mines, performing heavy and dangerous labor. Minors work up to 24 hours, carrying sacks of ore and earning only 1-2 dollars a day. 

This leads to tragic health consequences. Prolonged work in cobalt mining can cause a fatal lung disease known as cobaltosis and various skin diseases. Children of mine workers in the Katanga province, classified by The Guardian as one of the 10 most polluted regions globally, are more likely to be born with defects such as spinal bifida or limb deformities.

Does Electromobility Have to Mean Child Slave Labor in Congo? Successes of Cobalt Initiatives

To address this problem, increasing supply chain transparency is necessary. Technology companies must be accountable for the sources of their raw materials and ensure they are ethically sourced. 

City Lion’s philosophy is clear – in our batteries, we use only proven, branded cells from manufacturers that are concerned about the ethical origin of raw materials: Samsung SDI and LG Energy Solution. These companies pay a lot of attention to the issue discussed in this article. They are part of initiatives such as Cobalt For Development, Responsible Cobalt Initiative, and Fair Cobalt Alliance.

For example, Cobalt For Development conducts activities that have benefited over 1800 community members in Kisote and neighboring areas of the DRC, increasing access to education and organizing workshops on various topics, from bread baking to women’s rights, positive parenting, and conflict resolution. Such an approach helps diversify income for parents and reduce or eliminate families’ dependence on child labor.

The Responsible Cobalt Initiative, initiated in China, aims to create conditions that allow companies to exercise due diligence in their cobalt supply chains in line with OECD guidelines on due diligence.

Meanwhile, the Fair Cobalt Alliance, a multi-stakeholder action platform, offers entities throughout the cobalt supply chain a pre-competitive environment for cooperation to help strengthen and professionalize the artisanal cobalt mining sector in the DRC and contribute to overall local economic development.

Research published in 2021 has shown that these initiatives have a positive and tangible impact on reducing child labor and improving workplace safety.

Coming to the Rescue – The European Union with the EU Supply Chain Act

The key to solving this problem may be the awaited directive from the European Commission: the EU Supply Chain Act. The new EU law aims to hold companies accountable for managing social and environmental impacts throughout their supply chains, including in their own business operations, and goes far beyond existing national regulations. The law is set to compel European companies to respect human rights by imposing specific obligations regarding supplier due diligence. 

On June 2, 2023, the European Parliament passed this law by a majority vote. Now the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers must negotiate a common position for the law to be enacted. Then EU member states must transpose the directive into national law within two years. Germany, a European leader in sustainable development, implemented this law on January 1, 2023, without waiting for the rest of European countries.

Cobalt-Free Batteries: New Technologies Transforming the Electromobility Market

Let’s also discuss some facts about batteries. There are many cell models with varying compositions, but on average, cobalt accounts for about 4% of the mass in an NMC (Nickel, Manganese, Cobalt) battery. Importantly, the automotive and technology industries are taking steps to end unethical cobalt mining practices. 

The share of NMC technology in the battery market is decreasing, being replaced by cobalt-free technologies such as LFP (Lithium, Iron, Phosphate) used in many new popular electric car models, including the Tesla Model 3 and Y. In China, sodium batteries that do not contain cobalt or even lithium at all are already in production.

Investments in alternative technologies and sourcing cobalt from places with responsible mining practices could be key to a future change. Consumer awareness is also crucial – support for companies that prioritize ethics can influence the entire industry. City Lion carefully checks the origin of acquired cells and the practices of their manufacturers, supporting the development of ethical electromobility. We hope that more companies will follow this path.

Picture of Marcin Świder
Marcin Świder

I co-founded City Lion in December 2019. We manufacture and assemble battery packs for light electric vehicles. Within three years, we became the most popular European manufacturer of electric kick scooter batteries. Since 2023 we also produce electric bicycle batteries.

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