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Cobalt Red is a scathing indictment of the global cobalt trade, and by extension, the electric vehicle industry.
Imagine for a moment if the oil and gas sector had direct (or indirect) connections to slavery, child labor, or working conditions so dangerous that thousands of their workers were dying on the job every year.
The uproar and indignation would be heard from here to Houston. But in the case of the world’s supply of cobalt—an element that is a critical ingredient in the batteries that are driving the global EV craze—the response to the widespread use of child labor and hell-like working conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has gone largely unnoticed and vastly under-reported.
Siddharth Kara is among the world’s bravest journalists. And his new book, Cobalt Red: How the Blood Of The Congo Powers Our Lives, is a must-read. It is a compelling, confounding, and withering indictment of the global supply chains that provide cobalt to battery makers. It is also, by extension, an indictment of the electric vehicle sector and its insatiable hunger for the metals, minerals, and magnets that will be required for the much-hyped “energy transition.” (For more on this, see my January 15 piece on China’s dominance of rare earths and NdFeB magnets.)
Lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous in our lives. The majority of the consumer electronics with rechargeable batteries—mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and other gizmos that we touch nearly every day—contain cobalt. But the biggest consumer is the EV sector. In 2021, according to the Cobalt Institute, about 34% of global cobalt production, or roughly 60,000 tons, was used to produce EVs. Another 31% was used in other battery applications. The rest was used in metals, chemicals, and superalloys.
Cobalt is critical to EVs because it increases the energy density of batteries. Higher energy density allows EVs to travel further on a charge. Cobalt also helps prevent the cathodes in batteries from overheating and catching fire. And while many battery makers and EV companies are developing and using batteries that cut down, or eliminate the use of cobalt, the demand for the metal is soaring and the vast majority of that demand is coming from EVs.
Global cobalt demand “is forecast to approach 320,000 tons in the next five years, from 175,000 tons in 2021; 70% of growth will come from the EV sector.”
“Cobalt demand is expected to continue rising rapidly as the EV transition gains pace,” says a report published last May by the Cobalt Institute. “demand is forecast to approach 320,000 tons in the next five years, from 175,000 tons in 2021; 70% of growth will come from the EV sector.” (Emphasis added.)
That same report says that Congo produced 74% of the world’s supply of cobalt in 2021 and “87% of annual growth.” It continued, saying output from the “artisanal and small scale mining sector is estimated to have increased to 14,500 tons in 2021, 12% of the DRC’s total supply.” But that likely understates the actual output of these small and incredibly dangerous, mines. Kara says that the “artisanal” share of Congo’s cobalt output may exceed 30%.
In a recent interview, Kara told me that while “artisanal” may evoke images of baked goods or bespoke clothing, in Congo, that word means small-scale mining operations that are deadly and largely unregulated. Or, if they are regulated at all, the regulations are enforced by local militias or the military. In his book, Kara recalls the exploitation of Congo for its rubber and ivory by Belgium’s King Leopold II “during his brutal reign as king sovereign of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908.” Today, he said Congo is still being exploited and a “vast subclass of humanity continues to eke out a subhuman existence in slave-live conditions at the bottom of the global economic order. Less has changed since colonial times than we care to admit.”
Cobalt Red is the fourth book by Kara, who calls himself an “author, researcher, and activist on modern slavery.” While reading Cobalt Red, I also read his third book, Modern Slavery: A Global Perspective, in which Kara documents the widespread use of slavery all over the world. (Kara began documenting slavery more than 20 years ago.) In that book, published in 2017, he estimated that there are about 31 million enslaved people on the planet. He documents the horrific amount of sex trafficking (the most profitable aspect of modern slavery) as well as slavery’s role in other industries.
Documenting sex trafficking in Nigeria, he began a chapter with the subtitle “Into Darkness.” He wrote, “I have stepped into darkness many times, but none so dark as Nigeria. To research slavery is to face the raw unrestrained bestiary of man. Those beasts are most fiercely unleashed in the dens of sex slavery, and Nigeria is the most unleashed of them all.” He vividly recounts his visit to the home of a “juju priest” who was involved in the sale of young Nigerian women into forced prostitution. The details of the visit are hair curling and read as if they came straight out of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
To be sure, other researchers, including Laura Murphy of Sheffield Hallam University, are doing great work documenting slavery in today’s global supply chains. Murphy’s work on forced labor in the solar sector, and other sectors, in China’s Xinjiang Province, was a key factor in the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which President Biden signed into law in 2021.
But Kara’s reporting in Cobalt Red surpasses anything that I have read on these issues. His compassion, bravery, and dogged pursuit of the story are unrivaled. Kara told me that he began traveling to the Congo in 2018. He ended up making four trips to the country and with each trip, his reporting and eye for detail grew stronger.
Some of the most powerful passages are from his visits to Kasulo, a region where locals were digging tunnels almost immediately beneath their homes in the pursuit of cobalt. He writes:
The air was hot with the scramble for cobalt. The full spectrum of human emotion burst forth from every tunnel: hope, dread, greed, fear, anger, envy, and above all—torment. The mothers of Kasulo endured the greatest torment of all. Most of them did not wish to speak with me. There is grief, and then there is soul-wrenching misery. There is loss, and then there is life-destroying calamity. One encounters the limits of what human hears can endure all too often in the Congo. The land is filled with monsters, and the beast that dwells beneath Kasulo is a thousand-headed hydra, mouths agape, waiting for its prey to enter.
When a tunnel collapses in Kasulo, most bodies are never recovered. The family members are unable to give their loved ones a proper funeral. They are compelled instead to walk each day upon their dead. That is the reality that no one up the chain wants us to see. That is the truth that is meant to be buried there. The cruel design of a tunnel collapse makes sure of it, and everyone knows it. Perhaps they count on it—the impenetrable silence that obscures the vast tally of severed lives upon which great fortunes are built.
During my interview with Kara, he told me that the EV makers are “ransacking the Congo.” He continued, saying they are “participants in this enormous violence but they look the other way.” When I said that some cobalt producers and EV makers are paying more attention to their supply chains, and are trying to make sure they aren’t buying cobalt that was produced from the deadly mines in Congo, he said, “It’s all puffery.”
What does Elon Musk say about cobalt’s deadly supply chains? As you can see in this clip, he told Joe Rogan, “nobody actually cares.”
Was Musk being flip? According to one report, about half the Tesla vehicles produced in the first quarter of 2022 “were equipped with cobalt-free lithium iron phosphate [LFP] batteries.”
Earlier this month, Ford announced that it would spend $3.5 billion on a factory in Michigan that will produce LFP batteries. Although LFP cells don’t match the energy density of ones that use cobalt, they are cheaper to make and last longer. Nevertheless, the Cobalt Institute says that the “top EV models in Europe and the US are still dominated by nickel-cobalt chemistries.” The report lists 20 of the top-selling EVs, a group that includes familiar vehicles like the Nissan Leaf, Porsche Taycan, and Chevy Bolt. Of those 20 EVs, 16 of them rely on nickel-cobalt batteries.
When I asked Kara what he wanted to see happen, he replied that his goal as a journalist and witness to the slave trade is to “flood the world with truth.”
Cobalt Red is a truth bomb. Buy it and read it.