African children dying for our “green” energy revolution

“A young woman named Priscille stood in one of the pits with a plastic bowl in her right hand. She rapidly scooped dirt and water with the bowl and flung it onto a sieve a few feet in front of her. Her motions were precise and symmetrical, as if she were a piece of machinery designed only for its purpose. After the sieve was filled with gray-colored mud and sand, Priscille yanked the sieve up and down until only the sand remained. That sand contained traces of cobalt, which she scooped with her plastic bowl into a pink raffia sack. I asked Priscille how long it took her to fill one sack with the sand. “If I work very hard for twelve hours, I can fill one sack each day,” she replied. At the end of the day, the women helped each other to haul their fifty-kilogram sacks about a kilometer to the front of the site where négociants purchased each from them for around $0.80. Priscille said that she had no family and lived in a small hut on her own. Her husband used to work at this site with her, but he died a year ago from a respiratory illness. They tried to have children, but she miscarried twice. “I thank God for taking my babies,” she said. “Here it is better not to be born.”

This terrifying quote is taken from Siddharth Kara’s book “Cobalt Red – how the blood of the Congo powers our lives” that you may remember me mentioning in the first post of the year, before it appeared but after Kara had appeared on Joe Rogan to talk about it. As a reminder, he has done what no EV buyer or Western politician promoting the “green energy revolution” has ever done, namely travelled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and at considerable risk to his own life, visited all the large cobalt mines around the country that together make up around 70% of the cobalt that powers the Western world’s electrification. That it doesn’t power the DRC itself or provide it with any riches is well illustrated not only by the $1-2 the diggers earn per day, but also by the fact that the country’s own electrification has so far reached less than 10% of the population. Not measured in EV’s, but in lightbulbs.

When your family is starving, school is not an alternative

The DRC is basically filled with all the minerals, metals and precious stones you can think of, yet its population is one of the world’s poorest. Over the last 150 years it’s been plundered more times than anyone can remember and when it wasn’t by Western colonialists, it was then just as effectively by one in the long line of ruthless dictators who enriched themselves on the back of an increasingly poor population. The latest robbery is for cobalt of which there is plenty in various parts of the country. Some of it can be found on the surface with a simple shovel, but most of the reserves require tunnels to be dug. A fair amount of such tunnels are artisanal, dug by simple workers with shovels, mostly so small that only young children fit in them. Artisanal tunnels crumble regularly, on average once a week somewhere in the country, thereby severely injuring the children or burying them alive. That’s right – 10-11-year old children are regularly buried alive at dozens of meters under ground in complete darkness. 80% of the mines are owned by Chinese operators who share the profits with the dictator in power at the time. Tax that would potentially support the development of local communities is however something they do all they can to avoid.

If you ever felt your office was too small, this is the entrance ot his…

When Priscille and the thousands of other diggers across the country have carried their heavy sacks to their “négociant” (the dealer who pays them), these are transported away for further refinement on enormous, diesel-powered trucks. The traffic to and from the main mines is so intense that there is often long colons of trucks blocking the roads for miles, together with the mine operations themselves contributing to the terrible air quality plaguing most of the primitive villages the diggers live in, and heavily polluting their waterways and lakes. This is a big problem given fish is an essential food for many. When the trucks reach their destination, their load is mixed with the load of all the other trucks and from that point on, there is no way of separating cobalt from one place from that of another. There is thus no way for any company to claim that their cobalt hasn’t been excavated without child labor. Then again, Kara didn’t find one single mine on his travels where hundreds of children were not heavily at work.

Mines do not appear out of nowhere. They have been developed by mining companies starting around 30 years ago and have seen an exponential growth in the last 10 years when the race for cobalt really got going. There used to be villages, jungle and forests where the mines are today, and the few people who live long enough to remember those days will tell you they were never rich, but they had a decent life. That changed when the miners came, chopped the trees, burnt the villages, polluted the local water and with time the air, and everything then got worse again when the Chinese mining companies took over. Today the same people struggle to survive in primitive sheds and have no other choice than to work in the mines. I guess someone who earns $1-2 a day is technically not a slave, but it’s a very subtle difference. Most don’t live beyond 30 years. And like Priscille, those without children will thank the God, many somehow still believe in, for that.

There used to be villages and trees here

Kara’s book appeared in January and is no literary masterpiece, but the fact that its contents hasn’t lead to an intense debate and calls for an immediate stop to this murderous practice, which indirectly is subsidized by Western governments through EV subsidies out of our tax money, says a lot about our society. Around 120 years ago, Belgian king Leopold II spread terror across all of central Africa, killing millions, at the time for rubber. Back then, Westerners could be forgiven for not knowing what was going on, given the lack of information. Today and especially after Siddharth Kara’s book, the information is there for anyone who is interested. This makes us all guilty because there is cobalt in pretty much every appliance you have at home, but the quantitiees are measured in grams and not in kg’s as in EV’s, where a large EV battery pack contains around 10 kgs of cobalt. There are currently around 16 million EV’s in the world and children are dying in the Congo every day for them to function. International climate agreement calls for that number to increase more than five-fold over the coming decades. Putting aside the simple fact that at no point in human history have we succeeded in doubling (much less increasing five-fold) the amount of any input material in a 10-year period, you wonder how many children are yet to die, buried alive, handicapped with crushed legs, or from the poisoned water and air, until the dime drops.

50 kgs in one sack means $1-2 per day

Since reading the book and realizing the full scale of the catastrophy, I’ve taken upon me to try to spread the word about it as suprisingly, its publication has not led to what should have been obvious calls for these inacceptable practices to be stopped immediately. Engaging on Twitter on the subject with so called environmentalists (not a practice I would recommend to anyone with heart problems) typically gives two types of reactions. The first is a pretty astounding level of whataboutism, along the lines of oil and natural gas excavation being terrible as well. I’m the first to agree it is, but to my knowledge children aren’t systematically killed on oil wells. The other is to refer to the constant progress made on batteries and that soon, these problems will be behind us – so let’s close our eyes until that’s the case? It’s true that batteries will evolve but it’s neither for next week, nor for next year. And yes, you can build EV batteries without using cobalt (Tesla does for a fair part of their cars), but that reduces the energy density (i.e. the range), the stability (notably increasing the fire risk) and the longevity. And what replaces the cobalt is mostly nickel, of which Russia is the world’s leading producer.

You’ve seen it before, but this is a graph worth repeating

Contrary to these people I think we need to act now, since what goes on in the DRC is far from acceptable in a world that at least on the face of it makes a lot of noise on equal opportunities for all and not just the few. Not a single phone and certainly not a single EV should be built until the mining companies in the DRC can clearly demonstrate that child labor and artisanal mining is a thing of the past, that workers are paid a decent salary (we’d still be well below $10 per hour here, so it wouldn’t kill them), that they’ve built schools for the diggers’ children, and that they’re taking serious action against the environmental catastrophies they continue to cause.

I’m far too old and cynical for actually thinking that will happen, but I do think it’s at least our duty to try. There’s a few hundred of you reading this blog every week and my ambition has always been to give you an enjoyable few minutes on your weekend, late night or pause in the working day. I fully realize reading the above hasn’t been enjoyable at all and for the first time, I will ask a favour of you. If each of you can share this post with 2-3 of your friends and ask them to do the same, then just maybe we can slowly make a change to this scandal. The children currently digging in the mining districts of the Congo are doomed anyway, but perhaps we can contribute to a better life for the next generation. It’s a small hope but if you don’t believe in that, it’s very difficult to believe in anything. Thank you!

He will never drive a Tesla

Siddharth Kara’s book can be bought on Amazon here. Joe Rogan’s podcast witih him can be found here. If you’re new to the blog, you may want to read one of my previous posts on the topic of the unsustainability of EV’s that you’ll for example find here.

The last nail in the e-coffin

This week we’ll put the nail in the coffin of any dreams of personal car electrification in the coming years. That may sound drastic, but regular readers of the blog will remember I did my first post on the subject almost two years ago and have followed that up a couple of times, notably last summer, at a time when we were all living in the world where markets were good and Putin was, well not in Ukraine. On one hand things have thus changed in a way which is highly significant notably for EV’s. On the other I came across some really astounding facts a couple of weeks ago, the silence on which is very surprising. But if the media won’t tell you about it, then I guess I will, and although it may sound pompous, I really do think this seals the fate for the worldwide EV roll-out our Western politicians want to see over the coming years. Let’s dig in.

There are around one billion 450 million cars in the world or if you prefer, roughly one car per five world inhabitants (although it rather splits like three in our developed world garages and non in many developing countries). Almost all these cars are powered by a combustion engine, the basic principle of which is identical to the one invented around 150 years ago. That resounding success is of course helped by constant developments and improvements, but even more importantly, by the fact that the fuel needed to power it has been, and continues to be, plentiful. Put differently, had we reached peak oil a long time ago, it’s reasonable to think that the development of alternative fuels would have started earlier.

An E-Type V12 is a particularly fine example of the combustion engine!

The skepticism I’ve long held to our electrical future has nothing to do with the cars themselves (although most, after you’ve pushed the pedal to the metal a few times, are about as interesting as watching paint dry, but that will most probably change as more come to market – maybe). Much more though, this comes from the massive issues related to EV battery production, the less than convincing carbon footprint they have, and the geopolitical implications of where the necessary metals are located. But actually, you don’t even need to go there, because in addition to all this comes the simple fact that there isn’t enough of the materials needed for the electrical future to be realized. In other words, the alternative to the combustion engine is finally here, and it’s not a bad one, but the world doesn’t have enough “fuel” to power it on a massive scale. And yet, whilst concrete plans are drawn up for a ban on combustion engine cars, no one talks about it.

Never ever forget this picture – and apologies for the bad quality.

We’re told we should replace all our traditional cars with EV’s as quickly as possible. Let’s say we’re slightly less ambitious and content with 500 million EV’s as a first step. After all, that’s about 480 million more EV’s than are on the road today and maybe we don’t need all of those 1.45 billion cars going forward (that would actually be a fair assumption…). To supply batteries for that number of cars would require mining a quantity of energy minerals equivalent to about three trillion smartphone batteries. That’s equal to over 2,000 years of mining and production for the latter. And even if that through some miracles were to happen, it would still only eliminate 15% of the world’s oil consumption.

We would of course in addition have to mine whatever is needed for the solar panels, windmills and electrification needs of industry that should happen in parallel. Of course this assumes that all the countries from which we get these metals pose no political or moral issues, and continue to happily supply us with everything we need. No reminder is probably needed that one of the two most important of these countries is Russia which is currently engaged in a war in Europe and actively turning eastwards and away from us. Another one is the Congo, where children work in mines under inhumane conditions to extract 90% of the world’s cobalt production. Lithium on the other hand mainly comes from south America, notably Bolivia, with severe consequences for the local ground water supply.

Lithium extraction in Bolivia. Not really great for the local ground water…

Given however electrification is the chosen and from what you hear, the single way of development, the logical consequence should be to have increased mining high on the priority list. Without that, where are the metals supposed to come from? Of course that’s not what happens, especially not in the Western hemisphere. Our politicians much prefer to travel by private jet to a climate summit (COP 26) in a developing country (Egypt) to lecture other developing countries on their usage of fossil fuels, only to negotiate more oil and mineral deliveries from the same countries when the lights go out. Around 400 private jets brought the dignitaries of this world to COP in October and this year, and as an example, Germany has imported eight times more coal from South Africa than in 2021. So far however, we let the Chinese invest in new mines, preferring not to get our hands dirty.

The hypocrisy is truly hard to believe, But it doesn’t stop here. Few countries have been as vocal about human rights abuses in connection with the World Cup in Qatar as Germany, and emotions were running high when its team wasn’t allowed to wear rainbow armbands during the games in defense of LGBTQ rights. All this didn’t prevent its government from signing a natural gas deal with Qatar for the coming 15 years at the same time as the German team tried to qualify for the quarter finals.

Some of the more than 400 jets that brought world leaders to Egypt at the COP26

This last example serves to highlight a crucial point of which we’ve been reminded a few times already, and will certainly be reminded of many more times this and next year: when energy gets scarce, there’s a risk of people not being able to heat their homes or industry needing to shut down because of lack of electricity, then every single politician will do what it takes to keep the lights on, be it with dirty energy and, as I suspect will increasingly happen, be it in spite of sanctions as well. That’s also when EV’s become more of a problem than a solution.

Let’s summarize the facts that should be obvious by now;

1) We don’t have enough storage or mining capacity to extract the rare metals needed to produce batteries anywhere close to the scale needed for the electrification of the world’s auto fleet. As a concrete number, a single large EV battery pack of 500 kg can require up to 250 tons of earth being moved to produce sufficient ore to extract the quantities of metals required.

2) There is currently (meaning at least for the coming five years) no alternative battery technology to replace our metal-based batteries, and there are no other metals that are as efficient as the ones currently used. EV enthusiasts will often point to cobalt quantities being reduced given how problematic its production is. It is however substituted with nickel, mostly coming from Russia, not with other types of metals. Any other type of metal would make the battery less efficient. And even if you could argue that nickel from Russia is better than cobalt from the Congo, it’s really an improvement on the margin, not more.

You’ve seen the picture before – the mining worker in the Chinese-owned mined in the Congo earns around 3 USD per day. The carbon emissions in the black smoke behind him aren’t verified…

3) There is no reliable way to trace the full carbon footprint of an EV. Estimates vary widely and will continue to do so, and how could it be any different when in some instances you’re required to dig out 250 tons of earth in some of the poorest countries of the world, under conditions we don’t want to know about? No one has even tried to measure the climate impact of cobalt extractions in the Congo, and that’s probably a good thing. However, based on 50 academic studies, the estimated emissions to produce one single EV battery range from eight to 20 tonnes CO2. That’s before it’s been driven a single meter, and the higher end of that range is comparable to the emissions from a conventional car during its full lifetime.

4) In a world where electricity is scarce, EV’s for personal driving will not be prioritized. Here in Switzerland, the government’s energy emergency plan tells us not to use streaming services in times of crisis, or not to wash our laundry above 40 degrees. In the US, California has seen more power cuts this year than ever before. Under any of those scenarios, how likely is it that you’re allowed to charge your EV as much as you want? And when an EV charge is almost as much as filling your tank as has been the case in the UK in some places this year, where’s the incentive?

5) Finally, and although nothing really points at it, perhaps a bit of common decency and morality will come in to the public discussion, pointing to the fact that children in the Congo work in mines under terrible conditions to produce the metals needed for feel good Westerners to drive Teslas. Or that over 90% of the solar panels on our roofs are produced by Uighurs in Chinese prison camps, their only crime being to be Uighur? If fast fashion isn’t the way to go for the clothes we buy, then EV’s most certainly aren’t for our driving!

Therefore, batteries in their current shape or form are not the way forward, and current electrification plans for our auto fleet simply won’t happen. That doesn’t mean that the combustion engine in its current form will be there forever though. That’s however a story for another day. Until then, enjoy your conventional car – as long as you do, you’re doing the world a service!