Home / Opinion / Columns /  America’s frantic EV ambitions seem to entail ‘blood batteries’

In its rush to secure electric vehicle (EV) and battery-supply chains, the US government is splashing billions in commitments. But the desperation is leading it astray. Last week, the State Department released an MoU it signed in December to support a deal between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia to build a “productive supply chain, from mine to assembly line." The agreement is meant to drive investment and ensure the private sector has a “level playing field" in projects. The US is turning to Africa for raw materials. Almost 70% of the world’s cobalt, key to certain types of batteries, is mined in the DRC, which has nearly half the world’s reserves. Zambia is one of the largest producers of copper, used for other components. The US also imports copper from the DRC, its third-largest producer. But the US conveniently failed to mention that cobalt from the Congo has been at the centre of child labour abuses, as the State Department’s country report states. The press release announcing the MoU left it at “corruption", saying it was “committing to respect international standards to prevent, detect, and take legal action to fight corruption throughout this process."

The move is hypocritical. Now that the US needs cobalt and copper, it is willing to go into business and urge private investors to work in the DRC. What’s worse, it comes after its strong criticism of China’s alleged infractions. The US Labor Department put solar-grade polysilicon from Xinjiang province on a 2022 list of goods produced by child or forced labour—alongside cobalt from the DRC. In the report, US Labor Secretary Martin Walsh called the abuses in the Chinese region “egregious, systemic and ongoing" and said that “the goods produced under these conditions have no place in the US economy." The US banned goods from the Chinese province clearly because it saw the country as a strategic threat. That principle doesn’t seem to apply to the DRC, an unstable country in a volatile region. An insurgency in the eastern part has displaced over 450,000 people. That makes cobalt the blood diamond equivalent in batteries.

The US has, for several years, committed foreign aid to the DRC for economic support and health programmes of around $250-300 million annually. It renewed its development cooperation agreement that ensures $1.6 billion over the next five years. All noble, but by no means a justifiable path to secure cobalt and copper resources and boost industrialization there. Putting terms and conditions on the aid would be one place to start.

The abuses associated with cobalt are not peripheral issues. Mercedes-Benz AG, for instance, goes to great lengths to disclose its use to ensure transparency. The carmaker assesses and audits its battery-cell suppliers to prevent child and forced labour. Agreements for procuring these parts require disclosure from the entire cobalt supply chain. Even Tesla chief Elon Musk, who came under heavy criticism a few years ago for use of the battery material in his company’s vehicles, has walked away from the crucial element altogether.

Trying to secure cobalt supplies and elevating its importance, along with encouraging private investment to go into the DRC, is misguided. This approach highlights the deeper flaws with the US’s botched attempt at industrial policy. It’s been largely focused on its foreign affairs, not on what’s actually possible, or helpful, domestically. If it does want to sign up for the goods it now needs, then it should take a stand on who it will do business with, and on what terms.

What’s more, cobalt’s days may be numbered. With all the complex supply issues around it, companies are shifting away from the element and the types of batteries it goes into. The use of lithium iron phosphate has continued to rise sharply, as manufacturers scale up the safer chemistry which is cleaner to produce, with almost 30% lower emissions. It’s part of the reason why demand for cobalt in power-packs is expected to fall sharply over the next decade. That’s why it’s hard to imagine companies doubling down.

The State Department’s MoU states that the US commitment is for the greater good of climate change and will go towards the goal of limiting temperature increases to 1.5° Celsius, thereby “helping the international community reduce emissions." Commendable motives, indeed. However, no one has even begun to question what the multi-billion-dollar factory-building boom in the US to produce batteries will mean for greenhouse gases. Research has shown that cobalt-containing cathodes are the biggest contributors. It may be worthwhile for the US to invest in improving viable, cleaner technologies.

It’s easy to lash out and walk a higher moral ground with China, or Elon Musk and his large private-sector peers. It’s tougher to introspect, isn’t it?

Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrials including policies and firms in the machinery, automobile, electric vehicle and battery sectors across Asia Pacific.

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