Editorial : Rape of precious resources continues unabated

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While some have bemoaned the dependence of African states on commodities and raw materials for export, a new UNCTAD report suggests demand for raw materials used to manufacture rechargeable batteries will grow rapidly as the importance of oil as a source of energy recedes.

The report documents the growing importance of electric mobility and the main materials used to make rechargeable car batteries. Ongoing efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions are expected to spur further investment in green energy production, and alternative sources of energy such as electric batteries will become even more important as investors grow wary of the oil industry’s future.

Electric car sales have boomed in recent years, rising 65% in 2018 from the previous year to 5.1 million vehicles, and are expected to reach 23 million in 2030, according to the International Energy Agency.

Rechargeable batteries will play a significant role in the global transition to a low-carbon energy system, and help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions if the raw materials used in their manufacture are sourced and produced in a sustainable manner, the report says.

The worldwide market of cathodes for lithium-ion batteries – the most common rechargeable car battery – was estimated at US$7billion in 2018, and is expected to reach US$58.8billion by 2024, according to the report.

Unfortunately, however, the report indicates that the bulk of value added to raw materials used in making rechargeable batteries is generated outside the countries which produce the materials. The DRC, which accounts for over two-thirds of global cobalt production, has not maximised the economic benefits of the mineral due to limited infrastructure, technology, logistical capacity, financing and lack of appropriate policies to encourage local value addition.

The manufacture of positive electrodes for car batteries is dominated by countries in Asia. Sadly, the report also shines a light on the social and environmental impacts of extracting raw materials for car batteries, and underlines the urgent need to address them.

For instance, about 20% of cobalt supplied from the DRC comes from artisanal mines where child labour and human rights abuses have been reported. That is not too surprising, given the volatile security situation in the DRC – with competing rebel groups vying for such minerals in a brutal and often inhumane manner.

Up to 40,000 children work in extremely dangerous conditions in the mines for meagre incomes, according to UNICEF. This trajectory has to change.

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