LONDON (Reuters) – The electric vehicle (EV) story continues to gather momentum, with even major oil companies scrambling to join the coming green energy revolution. Royal Dutch Shell has just announced a partnership with leading automotive companies to install super-fast chargers on European highways.
But as ever more companies sign up to the bright, shiny EV future, there is rising concern about the heart of darkness in this new technology — you can’t power an EV without a lithium-ion battery and, for now at least, you can’t make a battery without using cobalt.
And most of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country racked by political instability, legal opacity and, at its darkest, child labor in its mines. This concentration of supply risk, both in terms of physical units and ethical sourcing, isn’t going away any time soon and could even worsen.
THE DARK SIDE
The DRC accounted for 66,000 tonnes of global mined cobalt production of 123,000 tonnes last year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s the official sector. There is also an artisanal stream of production, some of it using child labor and some of it controlled by insurgent militias.
Quite how much cobalt this gray sector generates is the main “known unknown” in any analysis of world production. But it is an undisputed fact that it has been seeping into the official supply chain for years.