Red, green and cobalt blue

The Road to Energy Transition Through Congo's mines

  Articoli (Articles)
  Matteo Gabutti
  07 June 2024
  14 minutes, 24 seconds

Translated by Giulia Maffeis

I first came across the term ‘cobalt’ in middle school, specifically next to the noun ‘blue’ on one of the tubes of paint we used in art classes, along with other esoteric-sounding nouns like ‘carmine red’ or ‘Veronese green.’

As early as the second millennium b.C., Egyptian and Babylonian societies were using this element to create a pigment with a strikingly cool, desaturated shade of blue for ceramics, glass, and polishes. Today, instead of colour, the discourse around cobalt focuses on its use in batteries of electronic devices and electric vehicles.

Cobalt has carved out a place of honour in the area of the energy transition, as well as creating debates on geopolitics and human rights concerning its extraction and processing.

Green transition

Racing the urgent threats of climate change and environmental degradation, the green transition has become a central theme within the European Union.

Brussels’ reply took shape in the so-called European Green Deal, a wide-ranging strategy approved in 2020 aimed at transforming the EU into “a modern, resource-efficient, and competitive economy.” This goal involves three main objectives: eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, distancing European economic growth from the exploitation of resources, and ensuring no other place or person is left behind.

In this framework, transportation is one of the main protagonists. According to 2020 estimates by the European Commission, the mobility sector contributes 5% of the EU’s GDP and is directly employing about ten million workers. At the same time, transport is responsible for a quarter of all EU greenhouse gas emissions.

In March 2023, despite some raised eyebrows, Member States agreed on the Commission's proposal to ensure that all new cars and vans registered in the EU from 2035 are zero-emission. The less enthusiastic countries were Poland, which voted against it, and Italy, which abstained together with Bulgaria and Romania. Germany was able to include vehicles operating on e-fuels in the measure. E-fuels are fuels produced from CO2 emissions and hydrogen from renewable sources through a highly energy-needing chemical synthesis process.

According to a study by La Sapienza University in Rome, “the e-fuels approach seems unrealistic” considering the current fuel demand in the EU. The most efficient and cost-effective zero-emission solution for European drivers, according to Transport & Environment, is currently battery-operated electric vehicles, which last year made up 16% of European sales, an even more impressive share compared to 2% in 2019. And this is where cobalt comes into play.

Blue Gold

Cobalt is a transition metal created as a byproduct of copper or nickel extraction. The biggest reserves of cobalt are found in the Central African Copperbelt, a region that stretches from the southern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Zambia, with exceptionally rich copper deposits.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Congolese provinces of Lualaba and Haut Katanga are the world's leading source of cobalt with 170,000 tons extracted in 2023, making up 74% of production of  global mining. The report also highlights that the first producer of refined cobalt is China, importing most of the metal from the DRC. China is also the largest consumer of cobalt, mainly to support the lithium-ion battery (LIB) industry.

The current use of cobalt for pigments has been overshadowed by its use in the battery sector, gaining the nickname ‘blue gold’ due to its scarcity and strategic value. According to the Cobalt Institute, in 2022, rechargeable batteries accounted for up to 70% of global cobalt use between the electric vehicle sector (40%) and portable devices (30%).

Essentially, cobalt is used in LIBs' cathode, the positive electrode that gives and receives lithium ions during the battery's charge and discharge phases. Though it has been partially replaced by other transition metals like nickel and manganese, a complete removal of blue gold would mean getting rid of the exceptional performance and stability the element provides to rechargeable batteries. In this sense, cobalt plays a key and hard-to-replace role in the increasingly urgent energy transition.

“The rapidly growing market penetration of LIBs for electric mobility applications, such as fully electric cars, will lead to an increase in the demand for raw materials, especially lithium and cobalt,” highlighted Prof. Stefano Passerini, Director of the Helmholtz Institute Ulm (HIU). The future availability of blue gold may become highly critical, as recognized by the Washington government in 2018, especially given its global scarcity and geographical concentration in the politically unstable DRC.

Although efforts are underway to reduce reliance on lithium and cobalt — from iron-based batteries to solid-state batteries — alternatives are still in the development phase and do not seem likely to dethrone LIBs soon. In any case, HIU’s calculations to 2050 are clear: whether with current cathodes or others with a reduced mix of nickel and cobalt, the total demand for blue gold will exceed the identified reserves, putting significant pressure on the battery supply chain.

Blood Red

Regarding the latter, Beijing's original dominance remains unchallenged, considering the prominent and expanding role of Chinese copper and cobalt mining activities in southern Congo. According to the International Energy Agency, China covers almost 85% of the world's lithium battery cell manufacturing capacity, overshadowing USA and Europe's respective 6% and 7%.

The DRC is risking being portrayed as a battleground between China and the West for control of a rare and valuable resource like blue gold. However, a Cold War perspective obscures the experience of those who live on that land.

“There is no such thing as a clean cobalt supply chain from Congo,” says Siddarth Kara, Global Professor at the British Academy and Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham. In his bestseller, Cobalt Red, the author describes the permeability of Chinese and Western mining concessions to the phenomenon of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM), also known as cobalt extraction by artisanal means and often in inhumane conditions, which represents the primary livelihood for the families of about 200,000 Congolese miners, according to 2019 OECD estimates.

Kara’s point of view adds to the direct accounts of other observers, painting a picture of a country disfigured and polluted by a complex yet unregulated production chain, where poverty, abuse, corruption, gender violence, and child exploitation are reigning.

In addition to the open-pit mines and claustrophobic ASM tunnels, industrial mining also has a devastating human and environmental impact. According to a report by the British NGO RAID and the Congolese AFREWATCH, water contamination from mining activities is so severe that it makes the Congolese Copperbelt a “sacrificial zone,” where residents suffer severe physical and mental consequences and human rights violations due to living in a highly polluted land.

“Amnesty International recognizes the vital role of rechargeable batteries in the energy transition away from fossil fuels. But climate justice demands a just transition,” stated Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International. “Decarbonizing the global economy can not lead to further human rights violations.”

The conditions of the Congolese people add an essential and already overlooked variable to an equation already made complex by the intersection of ecological, economic, and geopolitical needs. But no complexity justifies tainting the green transition, fueled by blue gold, with the red blood of DRC populations.

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Matteo Gabutti


Matteo Gabutti è uno studente classe 2000 originario della provincia di Torino. Nel capoluogo piemontese ha frequentato il Liceo classico Massimo D'Azeglio, per poi conseguire anche il diploma di scuola superiore statunitense presso la prestigiosa Phillips Academy di Andover (Massachusetts). Dopo aver conseguito la laurea in International Relations and Diplomatic Affairs presso l'Università di Bologna, al momento sta conseguendo il master in International Governance and Diplomacy offerto alla Paris School of International Affairs di SciencesPo. All'interno di Mondo Internazionale ricopre il ruolo di autore per l'area tematica Legge e Società, oltre a contribuire frequentemente alla stesura di articoli per il periodico geopolitico Kosmos.


Matteo Gabutti is a graduate student born in 2000 in the province of Turin. In the Piedmont capital he has attended Liceo Massimo D'Azeglio, a secondary school specializing in classical studies, after which he also graduated from Phillips Academy Andover (MA), one of the most prestigious preparatory schools in the U.S. After his bachelor's in International Relations and Diplomatic Affairs at the University of Bologna, he is currently pursuing a master's in International Governance and Diplomacy at SciencesPo's Paris School of International Affairs. He works with Mondo Internazionale as an author for the thematic area of Law and Society, and he is a frequent contributor for the geopolitical journal Kosmos.


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