The pandemic of 2020 wiped out entire industries and left many economies around the world in tatters. However, one bright spot in the bleak year was the electric vehicle (EV) sector, which not only withstood the economic calamity but thrived. There was a huge jump in EV sales in 2020 together with the stock prices of EV makers.
Morgan Stanley, an American investment bank, predicts that global EV sales will increase 50 percent or more in 2021. As gasoline-powered automobiles began to lose their grip on the car market to EVs, the latter are expected to “displace approximately 2.5 million barrels per day of oil consumption in 2030,” according to the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental energy policy group based in Paris.
EV market experts anticipate that the demand for EVs will outstrip supply, and is likely to be constrained mostly by production capacity limitations, including shortage of battery capacity, more than any other factor. Because EVs are run by energy stored in rechargeable battery technologies rather than fueled by traditional petroleum products, they depend on the manufacturing of batteries that so far has not kept up with the explosive demand for EVs. Importantly, there is also a shortage of large-scale production of raw materials that power batteries, such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and other metals, which are vital for making EVs.
Most EV manufacturers prefer the blend of lithium and cobalt to run their batteries because it packs high energy density, low weight, recyclability, and power.
Of all potential battery configurations, most EV manufacturers prefer the blend of lithium and cobalt to run their batteries because it packs high energy density, low weight, recyclability, and power compared to other metal combinations. Cobalt also provides longer lifespan, safety, and thermal stability for batteries. However, it also comes with disadvantages.
Cobalt is expensive. It is more difficult to get because it is a derivative of copper and nickel mining; and it has been a source of child labor, worker exploitation, and corruption in cobalt-producing countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Pure cobalt, i.e., one that is not a byproduct of copper and nickel mining, is only produced in Morocco and Canada so far. As the world’s 12th biggest cobalt exporter, Morocco could potentially play an important role for the global transition from fossil fuel-run internal combustion vehicles to battery-based cars.
Morocco’s profile in the world of extractive industries has increased further after it signed a cobalt manufacturing agreement with BMW, a German luxury car maker, in July 2020. BMW, which moved away from procuring cobalt from DRC, agreed to pay 100 million euros to a Moroccan mining conglomerate Managem for cobalt manufactured in its Bou-Azzer mine, located in the Ouarzazate province, south of the country’s Atlas Mountains. Bou-Azzer is managed by Compagnie de Tifnout Tiranimine (CTT), which belongs to Managem. BMW emphasizes that cobalt in Morocco will comply with environmental standards and respect for human rights.
Under the increasingly negative limelight on cobalt mining, especially after reports of child labor and unsafe and inhumane working conditions of cobalt miners in DRC, car companies have felt pressured in recent years to seek ethical manufacturing of this metal. By signing a cobalt production agreement with Morocco, BMW presumably agreed that the mining practices there would be better than in DRC. But the extent to which such practices are better in Morocco are yet to be seen.
Morocco has been no stranger to controversy when it comes to exploitation of mining workers. And often grassroots calls for accountability against mining practices have been ignored. For example, vulnerable Imazighen communities in south-east Morocco have spoken up about toxic waste, which poses a public health risk, left by Société Metallurgique d’Imider’s silver mining operations. Reported illnesses of workers due to exposure to poisonous byproducts of manufacturing of fertilizer and phosphoric acid south-west of Casablanca has drawn criticism to the state-run mining company OCP over the last six years. OCP denied allegations of misconduct.
Over the past decade, workers at the cobalt mine in Bou-Azzer have accused CTT of creating working conditions bordering on slavery.
Cobalt mining in Morocco has also been rife with abuse and neglect of workers’ rights and the local environment. With the growth of demand for this metal in the EV market, extraction of cobalt could potentially become a curse for the well-being of ordinary Moroccans rather than a source of economic benefits. Over the past decade, workers at the cobalt mine in Bou-Azzer have accused CTT of creating working conditions bordering on slavery. They dig for cobalt under 600 meters below ground without protections from potential landslides and electric shocks. Nor are they given an extra compensation for working in risky conditions. Reportedly, wages of workers remain low, while the company rakes in millions of dollars in profit every year. Moreover, CTT has allegedly ignored worker fatalities from preventable accidents in Bou-Azzer.
Extensive exposure to cobalt can lead to a host of serious health troubles, including lung disease, heart failure, impaired eyesight and hearing, and skin problems. CTT has been accused of refusing to pay for treatment of silicosis diagnosed among its workers. Silicosis is a common lung disease that can be developed from inhaling dust in mines, which can be prevented with proper protection. When workers became seriously ill from working in the mine, the company reportedly fired them without severance pay. CTT also silenced them from speaking out against the unsafe and poor working conditions.
Reckless mining practices in Bou-Azzer has also affected the environment. Because mining requires massive amounts of water, CTT has used water at no charge. This has allegedly resulted in groundwater pollution and water shortages in nearby communities. Careless cobalt mining around the world has been linked to the loss of fertile lands, tainted crops, and damages to the environment.
Careless cobalt mining around the world has been linked to the loss of fertile lands, tainted crops, and damages to the environment.
CTT’s exploitation of workers led to open protests in Taznakht and Ouarzazate in 2011 against mistreatment of miners. However, there have been no reported protests since then, and it is difficult to gauge the extent to which the company has been silencing its employees from speaking out about their current working conditions. The mine is not open to outside visitors.
With the meteoric rise in global demand for cobalt, it is incumbent on the Moroccan government and the international community to ensure improvement of the working conditions in Bou-Azzer and to protect the well-being of workers and local communities.
As consumers of batteries used for all types of electronic good, including EVs, we must prioritize holding car makers and extractive companies to account and put the limelight on the rights of miners and the environment first before we blindly buy into the EV frenzy. It will be an irony and tragedy to replace fossil fuel-powered cars with cleaner EVs in the name of fighting climate change, all the while powering them with metals that are sourced through the labor of exploited poor and vulnerable masses and a devastated environment.