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No end to cobalt demand, despite child labor ties

Global cobalt mining capacity, by country
Data: Rystad Energy; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

Global dependence on cobalt is rising, even as tech giants from Apple to Tesla pledge to rid their batteries of the stuff given its ties to child labor.

Why it matters: Cobalt is used for EVs, battery backups, cellphones — a range of consumer products we all use. The insatiable demand for these products — plus the lack of a ready replacement for cobalt — has entirely outstripped efforts to do something about the human rights concerns.

Catch up fast: The Democratic Republic of Congo supplies 70% of the world's cobalt. Yet mining operations there are deeply intertwined with child labor.

Details: The DRC will continue to hold a "dominating position" in cobalt through about 2030, Susan Zou, battery materials analyst at Rystad Energy, tells Axios.

What's next: Government policies aimed at reducing cobalt dependence, combined with efforts to phase out the material and ramp up recycling, may finally slow cobalt demand by about 2030.

But, for now: Cobalt mining in the DRC is consolidating around four conglomerates, which are pushing out the small miners that have developed the worst child-labor records.

  • “By 2025, over half of the production share of cobalt mined in the DRC...will be concentrated in the hands of four miners: CMOC, Glencore, ERG and Chemaf," according to Rystad Energy.
  • The major driver behind the production: EVs and demand from China.
  • "More than 80% of the cobalt mined in the DRC is exported to China, which is the world’s largest producer and consumer of refined cobalt used in EV batteries," says FTI Consulting managing director Bertrand Troiano.
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