Electric Cars and Cobalt Mining: The Environmental Sustainability of the Privileged

Opinion By: Benita Kayembe

Graduate Student in Global Health and Population, Harvard University
May 31, 2023

The opinions expressed in this commentary are my own.

Where I am from, it is typical to hear about outbreaks of civil war, probably provoked to secure the economic interests of non-local communities. I am talking about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the most resource-rich countries on earth. There, mines are depleted to secure the economic welfare of economically advanced nations. Ironically, Congo’s population, working on those mines, does not benefit neither from the monetary gains nor the technological innovations built from their resources [1]. Every day, if not every hour, huge amounts of cobalt, besides others, are siphoned from Congolese mines to support the creation of, for example, electric cars and others for those who buy the idea that electric cars are sustainable, better for the environment, and the world [2].

In this era where climate change is threatening our planet and most of us are looking for channels to mitigate its effects on humanity, most have turned to the use of cobalt to create electric cars and other electronics, as one of the solutions. In the Congo, one of the places where Cobalt is mined, cobalt is extracted in often uncontrolled mining and unregulated stock exchanges for natural resources. In fact, there are no stock exchanges operating in the Congo to regulate the mining industry [3]. Such uncontrolled mining causes water pollution, air pollution, soil erosion; it affects the health of those around it and leaves areas from which it is extracted worse off. Yet, on the other hand, excited by the promise that electric cars are better for the environment, economically advanced countries are increasingly excited about the idea of investing in more electric cars, consequently needing more cobalt, promising a better and sustainable alternative for transportation.

While many in the global north are excited by this idea of being electronically empowered to fight global warming, starting with electric cars for transportation, those in the global south are suffering from the negative effects of living and working in uncontrolled mining. I wonder what sort of sustainability this is. It seems like depending on where one lives, what is meant to fight for the environment, what it means to sustain life and find a solution to mitigating the effects of global warming, is approached, seen, and experienced differently.

I live in the United States. Here, we are willing to pay however much it is to get the latest and prettiest electric car. This looks good on us. Not only are we 'maybe' driving more responsibly and contributing to our 'self-centred' environmental sustainability's view, but we can also afford that. We have the money. We choose to invest in electric cars to look good, feel good, or perhaps tell our consciousness that we are doing good for and by the environment.

But, what about the people involved in extracting cobalt mines in often deplorable conditions to produce electric cars? Are they included in the aim for sustainability? What about the deterioration of the environment due to our eagerness to be technologically advanced? What about those unseen and not talked-about lives affected by cobalt’s exploitation in Congolese mines so that rich countries can innovate to feel secure in their ability to adapt to global warming? What about all the things and people, known and unknown, who are affected by natural resource extractions? Aren’t they a part of the environment that we all so want to protect with the idea of sustainable cars?

Although we are hoping that electric cars will help us resolve this anthropogenic situation we brought upon us, technology has been the downfall of planet earth. Technology has been good, but only for those who can afford it. It works well for those who can afford to live sustainably by driving electric cars, for example. This is, as a friend joked, “the environmental sustainability for the privileged”.

Sustainability for the privileged is when the dream of electric cars is being sold as part of a solution to global warming but can only be afforded by the privileged, while, because of such cars, civil wars are created, and lives are lost in non-privileged states. Electric cars are seen by some as perfect and by others as a better alternative to older forms of cars [4]. Electric cars can indeed be more sustainable than older forms of cars. But, from my perspective, this is just a one-sided view of sustainability. A one-sided view of what is needed to mitigate the effects of global warming. This is an environmentally sustainable view where only a few can afford to be sustainable and, of course, at the expense of others.

Electric cars are an alternative that aims to limit humanity’s use of gasoline or petroleum. And yet, electric cars still must use cobalt, which is also costly both in terms of lost lives and biodiversity. Here, economically advanced countries (not often subjected to the negative effects of cobalt exploitation) stay with a comparative advantage in benefiting from natural resources - while poor countries like the Congo(subjected to the negative effects of cobalt exploitation) - remain at a comparative disadvantage where they suffer from the consequences of simply existing in exploited mines. Most communities living in proximity to mines can neither adapt to global warming nor afford the technology needed to help them do so.

The exploitation of natural resources leaves exploited regions and populations poor while giving the exploiters power, money, and the comfortability that comes with technological innovations. As of now, economically advanced countries are enjoying electric cars. Most tell themselves that they are living more sustainably. Yet, other people, especially those working on the ground to extract natural resources like cobalt to fuel innovations, neither gain from the monetary profits from mining exploitations nor can they afford the comfortability or abilities that technological innovations, from their ground, produces. They go unmentioned, uncared for, and worse off for the benefit of others.

The past 100 years have proven that humanity can create unimaginable technological upheavals. Likewise, we can invest in finding and creating alternatives to energy sources for electric cars for a better future. There is ongoing research by advocates to develop cobalt-free lithium-ion batteries to resolve issues surrounding cobalt mining [5]. Hence, we should not stop searching for better alternatives until we reach the pinnacle of inclusive environmental sustainability in that space. Creating awareness about these topics and investing, monetarily or else, in holistically inclusive technologies is a great start.

We gratefully acknowledge Hugue Nkoutchou for his helpful comments and Kenneth Nsah for editing this op-ed piece.


[2] Tsurukawa, N., Prakash, S., & Manhart, A. (2011). Social impacts of artisanal cobalt mining in Katanga, Democratic Republic of Congo. Institute for Applied Ecology. Retrieved from http://resourcefever.com/publications/reports/OEKO_2011_cobalt_mining_congo.pdf
[3] U.S. Department of State. (2020, December 1). Congo, Democratic Republic of the - United States Department of State. U.S. Department of State. https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-investment-climate-statements/congo-democratic-republic-of-the/.
[5] ScienceDaily. (2020, July 16). New cobalt-free lithium-ion battery reduces costs without sacrificing performance. ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/07/200716101612.htm.
[4] Nilsson, M., Griggs, D., & Visbeck, M. (2016, June 15). Policy: Map the interactions between Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/534320a.