Cobalt’s human cost: Social consequences of green energy must be assessed in addition to environmental impacts

While driving an electric car has fewer environmental impacts than gasoline-powered cars, the production of the parts necessary for these green technologies can have dire effects on human well-being.

After studying the impacts of mining cobalt—a common ingredient in lithium-ion batteries—on communities in Africa’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, an interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Northwestern University is calling for more data into how emerging technologies affect human health and livelihoods.

For years, researchers have been conducting environmental life cycle assessments (E-LCA), in which they calculate the environmental impacts of a product all the way from the extraction of raw materials required to make it, to its use and ultimate disposal. More recently, researchers have attempted to develop similar frameworks to evaluate social life cycle assessments (S-LCA), which can be used to understand how emerging technologies affect human health and well-being.

What researchers discovered was deeply troubling. They found cobalt mining was associated with increases in violence, substance abuse, food and water insecurity, and physical and mental health challenges. Community members reported losing communal land, farmland and homes, which miners literally dug up in order to extract cobalt. Without farmland, Congolese people were sometimes forced to cross international borders into Zambia just to purchase food.

“You might think of mining as just digging something up,” Young said. “But they are not digging on vacant land. Homelands are dug up. People are literally digging holes in their living room floors. The repercussions of mining can touch almost every aspect of life.”

Waste generated from mining cobalt and other metals can pollute water, air and soil, leading to decreased crop yields, contaminated food and water, and respiratory and reproductive health issues. Miners reported that working conditions were unsafe, unfair and stressful. Several workers noted that they feared mineshaft collapses.

Deep-sea mining may push hundreds of species to extinction

Almost two-thirds of the hundreds of mollusc species that live in the deep sea are at risk of extinction, according to a new study that rings another alarm bell over the impact on biodiversity of mining the seabed.

More than 80% of the ocean remains unmapped, unobserved and unexplored, and there is increasing opposition to deep-sea mining from governments, civil society groups and scientists, who say loss of biodiversity is inevitable, and likely to be permanent if it goes ahead.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN body, is meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, to agree a route for finalising regulations by July 2023 that would allow the undersea mining of cobalt, nickel and other metals to go ahead.

The species we studied are extremely reliant on the unique ecosystem of hydrothermal vents for their survival,” said Elin Thomas, the lead researcher. “If deep-sea mining companies want all the metals that form at the vents, they would remove all the habitat that the vent species come from. But the species have nowhere else to go.”

There are at least 600 known hydrothermal vents worldwide, at depths of 2,000-4,000 metres, and each are roughly a third of the size of a football pitch. They act as natural plumbing systems, transporting heat and chemicals from the Earth’s interior in massive geysers, and they also help regulate ocean chemistry. In doing so, vast – and valuable – mineral deposits accumulate at the fissures. The heat from them, on the otherwise cold seabed, also makes them biodiversity hotspots, akin to coral reefs or tropical rainforests.

The extinction threat was worst in the Indian Ocean, where every species was listed as threatened and 60% as critically endangered, and where many mining exploration licences have been issued by the ISA.

Is deep-sea mining a cure for the climate crisis or a curse?

Trillions of polymetallic nodules litter Earth’s ocean floors. Each is rich in manganese, nickel, cobalt and copper; some of the most important metals for manufacturing low carbon technology.

Mining companies claim the nodules are desperately needed to manufacture the technology to lower carbon emissions, and to prevent significant environmental impact on land.

Researchers state that mining deep-sea nodules would be catastrophic for oceans. Ocean biodiversity would be obliterated by dredging, and plumes of sediments, laced with toxic metals, would be sent spiralling upwards to poison marine food-chains.