Electric vehicles are an Edisonian testament to modern research and ingenuity. Unfortunately, however, the process of acquiring the requisite minerals for most batteries and energy storage is decidedly less commendable. Forced child labor and Dickensian worker conditions in central Africa continue to mar global supply chains for cobalt. While the Biden administration has vowed to support high labor standards in Africa, history has shown that empty promises have failed to rid renewable energy supply chains of modern slavery.
Greater and more advanced forms of energy storage play a crucial role in the renewable energy transition. Just like electric vehicles, a reliance upon solar and wind electricity generation will most likely need enormous battery storage to keep the lights on when the weather doesn’t cooperate. Researchers are racing to develop new forms of energy storage, but cobalt remains pervasive in advanced battery technology. Moreover, federal efforts to increase the proliferation of renewable technology stands to increase demand for batteries and their mineral components.
Herein lies the problem — 71 percent of global cobalt is sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the pillaging of natural resources has a sinister history stretching back to at least Belgian colonial control of the region.
Congolese cobalt has not escaped this pattern. Around 40,000 children — many coerced, unremunerated, or subject to horrific injuries — toil in makeshift mines to feed a growing global demand for cobalt. According to Herve Diakiese Kyungu, a Congolese human rights lawyer who recently testified before the US House of Representatives’ Human Rights Commission, child miners are often overseen by Chinese intermediaries, who later traffic the ore through major mining companies.
Despite all the self-congratulations and back-patting over recent federal climate initiatives, American domestic law appears unable to guarantee the cleanliness of the cobalt supply chain. In December 2019, the NGO International Rights Advocates filed a federal class action lawsuit against five of the largest tech companies in America on behalf of children who were maimed or killed in cobalt mining accidents in the DRC. However, the case was dismissed in 2021, in part because the link between the companies and the child miners was opaque and far removed along the supply chain. In the meantime, International Rights Advocates have appealed the decision.
The lack of supply chain transparency creates a convenient excuse to ignore the role of modern slavery in the renewable energy transition. To be clear, tech firms and their suppliers in the DRC are innocent unless proven guilty. But compromised cobalt is not vanishing — someone is buying compromised cobalt. Moreover, the ad-hoc mélange of raw cobalt flowing from both licit and illicit sources in rural areas of the DRC will make any legal action difficult in foreign courts.
Rather, the solution is political, and the Biden administration has a prime opportunity to act. Despite enduring political polarization in Washington, there is a rare bipartisan consensus that modern slavery has no place in the American energy grid. Building upon the Trump administration’s efforts to limit the trade in produce tainted by Uyghur forced labor in China, last year President Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law. Spearheaded by Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida in the Senate and Massachusetts’ own Representative Jim McGovern in the House, the law establishes the presumption that goods made in the Xinjiang region — such as solar panels — are the product of forced labor and thus inadmissible to the United States, unless proven otherwise.
This experience has demonstrated that decisive political action at home is the most direct way to keep modern slavery out of American supply chains. Speaking on the sidelines of the recent UN General Assembly meeting, Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed that the United States would support only those African mineral mining projects “that adhere to high environmental, social, and governance standards.” However, the DRC’s preexisting labor protection standards are evidently toothless. According to one Biden administration official, the DRC “is unable to carry out even baseline inspections in mining or any other sector of the economy.”
Rather than offering lip service to environmental, social, and governance standards, the Biden administration should demonstrate that modern slavery has no place in the energy transition. The Kimberley Process provides a potential model for cleaning up cobalt supply chains. Since 2003, the strategy has used close monitoring and certification to reduce the number of conflict diamonds in global circulation. Pilot cobalt supply chain mapping also provides a starting point. What better venue to unveil an initiative than the United Nations’ annual COP climate conference, which will return to Africa in November? Ahead of the White House’s US-Africa summit in December, the Biden team can draw a sharp distinction between America’s values and those of China and Russia when doing business in Africa.
Without taking decisive action to clean up renewable supply chains, an uncomfortable parallel remains between modern climate evangelists and the colonial emissaries of yore. Preaching virtue and salvation from the coming flames rings hollow when matched with a blind eye to the brutal treatment of host communities. History, however, is not forced to repeat itself.
Oliver McPherson-Smith is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.