Outlawing the sales of diesel and gasoline cars is one initiative designed to reduce air pollution levels and meet the conditions set out in the Paris agreement to reduce global emissions. Electric cars are expected to takeover, but currently account for less than 1% of global vehicle sales. So, the solution is simple: we need to buy more electric cars to effectively combat climate change, but what knock-on effects does this bring?
Most electric vehicles use lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries and these batteries contain cobalt. More than half the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where children as young as seven are working in perilous conditions to mine this metal.
Is this the most ethical way to combat climate change? Should we continue with the exploitation of child labour to meet the demands of a greener future? Whose responsibility is it to cease this affair? Or is there an understanding that things are fine the way they are?
The greater good?
Why does cobalt mining still continue to this day? Basically, cobalt is a very popular and almost essential mineral because it is used in virtually all batteries in common devices, including cell phones, laptops and electric vehicles. Let’s take some ethical frameworks into consideration that defend the use of child labour for cobalt mining in the DRC.
Utilitarianism suggests that by not extracting this precious material, the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people would not be achieved, as we would be forced back into relying on fossil fuels and pollution levels would continue to rise. This negatively affects all life on this planet, along with all future life. Thus, without cobalt mining, we are back to square one, with no large-scale solution to combat climate change.
Further to this, children working is a necessity for some families to survive in the DRC. Imagine being in a situation where our loved ones depended on the little income that we could provide. Arthur worked as a child miner from the young age of 9. When speaking to Amnesty International, he said “I worked in the mines because my parents couldn’t afford to pay for food and clothes for me. Papa is unemployed, and mama sells charcoal.” Without the current and increasing global demand for cobalt, what would this family’s future bring?
Now, let’s examine cobalt mining in the DRC from a business standpoint. ‘Conflict minerals’ are minerals mined in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuses, and which are sold or traded by armed groups. There are UK and EU legislations that regulate their extraction and sale. Companies trading minerals in the DRC are ‘encouraged’ to be socially, economically and environmentally responsible, however, cobalt is not defined as a conflict mineral in the DRC. So, if governing bodies do not feel that cobalt is being exploited, then why should multinational companies regulate its acquisition? Furthermore, in 2016, Amnesty International found that no country legally requires firms to publicly report their cobalt supply chains – allowing multinationals easy deniability. Thus, nothing illegal is actually taking place amongst any corporate stakeholders.
No way it Congo on!
How are you reading this? On your smartphone? On your laptop? Have you ever used a hybrid vehicle? For most the answer is yes, and as such, we are all an accessory to child exploitation.
Kant expressed that we shouldn’t allow others to act in a way we wouldn’t act ourselves. Would a child living in a more economically developed country want to mine for as little as $1 per day? It is unlikely. Why should a child in the DRC be any different? Let’s put something into context, $1 per day in the DRC doesn’t even buy you a pint of milk. The risks of lung disease and dermatitis, along with grueling 12-hour shifts don’t even begin to explain the extent of the trauma that these children experience. Charity workers who have seen the conditions first hand explain that “the working conditions in the Congolese mines are miserable, many children are often physically ruined as a result.’’ Needless to say, this should not be commonplace.
Intuitionism states that our gut feeling or impulse determines whether an action is right or wrong. This, along with common sense, tells us that child exploitation cannot continue.
Perhaps it is the role of the technological overlords like Apple and Samsung to scrutinise the social impacts within their supply chain. In a step forward, Apple is planning to cut-out the middleman by purchasing directly from miners, whilst Samsung are looking to recycle existing Li-ion batteries to fight the surging cobalt prices (12) (13). Unfortunately, these positive actions can only go so far, due to the sobering fact that alternative locations cannot supply the large quantities needed, despite Tesla securing its own fully ethical source in North America. (Shout out to Elon!) Remember, more than half of the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the DRC.
Instead, should the responsibility lie on engineers to produce alternative designs that don’t contain cobalt? Is the topic a governmental issue? Or should we be demanding that multinationals change their ways?
Perhaps the most well-rounded approach would be that these companies invest more in the DRC and provide fair pay and proper working conditions. This would only seem reasonable considering the huge profits that are made from products containing cobalt. As mentioned above, legally, there is no requirement to monitor the way in which cobalt is obtained, and more people are gaining rather than suffering as a result of the mining. That said, some form of moral compass should indicate that the current method is socially negligent, insensitive and unsustainable.
For further details, watch this video which neatly explains this discussion in more detail.
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