Cobalt is ubiquitous. From your smartphone in your pocket to the battery of the electric car you drive, or as a superalloy in the aircraft engine that whisked you to paradise – it is a critical component of modern life since the metal protects batteries from overheating, catching fire, and extends their lifespan. As demand for cobalt has skyrocketed over the last few decades, it is Congo, home to most of Earth’s cobalt reserves, which has bore the brunt. This article explores the environmental impacts of cobalt mining in Congo.
Cobalt Mining in Congo
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa’s second-largest country, is endowed with an exceptional array of natural resources, from coffee, diamonds, and timber, to its famed biodiversity-rich Congo Basin – the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest. Yet it is cobalt that the nation is famed for since it possesses over half of the world’s cobalt reserves, at some four million tons as of 2022, and currently accounts for around 70% of global production.
With the electrification of the global energy system gathering momentum year after year, demand for cobalt has seen unprecedented growth. In 2021, the market grew by 22% and is expected to rise by 13% per year for at least the next five years. As such, mines – both legal and illegal – have been appearing all over the nation, and threatening the pristine tropical rainforest.
Because of its size and diversity, scientific experts have characterised the Congo Basin’s Forest as a critical player in mitigating climate change because of its role to act as a carbon sink. Of the world’s three remaining largest tropical rainforests, only the Congo has enough standing forest left to remain a strong net carbon sink, both the Amazon and Southeast Asian rainforests now emit more carbon than they sequester.
It is difficult to establish just how large of an area of the Congo Basin has been deforested to make way for cobalt mines since the country’s richness in other natural resources contributes to the forest loss. However, it has been estimated that millions of trees have been clear-cut by giant mining companies, and satellite imagery illustrates a barren wasteland in areas of once thriving biodiversity.
The Environmental Impacts of Cobalt Mining in Congo
Cobalt is fast turning from a miracle metal to a deadly chemical as toxic dumping is devastating landscapes, polluting water, and contaminating crops. High concentrations of cobalt have even been linked to the death of crops and worms, which are vital for soil fertility.
“In this stream, the fish vanished long ago, killed by acids and waste from the mines,” says Congo resident Heritier Maloba, staring into the murky waters of his childhood fishing hole. This is a similar story across the cobalt regions of Congo.
A study that collected fish from Tshangalale lake, which is adjacent to mining towns, found that the fish were contaminated with prominent levels of cobalt. This contamination is easily spread to humans through the consumption of fish or drinking of the lake’s water. Classified as a ‘possible’ carcinogen, and being a radioactive element, this also poses an immense hazard to human health.
A further environmental impact of cobalt mining in Congo is the hazy air surrounding the mines, full of dust and grit, and toxic to breathe. Studies have shown that the risk of birth defects, such as limb abnormalities and spina bifida, greatly increased when a parent worked in a cobalt mine, linked to high levels of toxic pollution caused by the extraction of cobalt.
Commonly coined “blood cobalt”, unfortunately, it is not just Congo’s environment that has faced the brunt of cobalt mining, but its people too. Cobalt mines dial back the clock to centuries past, where people are working in subhuman degrading conditions, using pickaxes and shovels to hack at the earth in trenches and pits to gather cobalt and feed it up the supply chain. Congo’s cobalt boom has been subject to modern-day slavery, human trafficking, and child labour. More information can be found in Siddharth Kara’s highly esteemed book Congo Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives.
The quest for Congo’s cobalt has demonstrated how the clean energy revolution, meant to save the planet from perilously warming temperatures, is caught in a familiar cycle of environmental degradation, exploitation, and greed.
More on this topic here: Cobalt Mining: The Dark Side of the Renewable Energy Transition
The most obvious solution to break this cycle and halt the negative impacts of cobalt mining is to stop mining the metal altogether. However, this is impossible in a society that relies on cobalt to function.
The next best solution is reducing the demand for cobalt in the lithium-ion batteries found in electric devices. This could be through borrowing electric items, donating your unwanted electric goods to be recycled or repaired and redistributed to charities, and learning how to repair broken electronics. There are even large-scale funds, like the partnership between Virgin Media O2 and Hubbub which awards grants of between £10,000 – £75,000 for UK projects which reduce e-waste, encourage recycling of electronic goods, or support devices being used over and over again.
All the above focus on e-waste recycling, which will in turn help meet the rising demand for cobalt and stem the environmental degradation and social pressures the mining brings.
Featured image by Wikimedia Commons.
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