WEAKNESSES THAT NEED to be overcome by Africa in the quest for renewable energy are many and varied. Some are institutional, some historical and systemic, while some are political. But they are all interwoven. Untangling them may therefore not be altogether easy, as solving one aspect of the problem in isolation may create a vacuum or a complication in others. A holistic approach will require a collaboration of all countries of Africa to avoid piling up the problem of one country on another, or passing the problem of one country to another in an attempt to overcome a particular problem.
Although discussions about environmental degradation in Africa recognise some forms of mining activities – mostly state-led – as contributory causes, the enormity of the damages caused are hardly exposed to policy searchlight and official interventions. Reports of environmental destruction associated with the new “Green wave” are often suppressed, doctored or hidden in some official government circles for fear of retribution, rejection or some other forms of backlash from protesters or activists. Regulators sometimes shy away from demanding strict adherence to global best practices in their oversight tasks on extraction of raw materials used for promoting green energy gadgets, devices and machines. Sustainability reports of corporate organisations tend also to be rather ritualistic, following some templates or a set of rule-of-thumb or norms that may not always reflect the true realities, but rather in alignment with some forms of political correctness. This may sometimes be in an attempt to minimise some environmental issues that are seemingly inconsequential, unlikely to have immediate negative impacts or significant unintended consequences.
In the book titled “Green to Gold,” Daniel C. Esty and Andrew S. Winston wrote that “environmental challenges can seem like a series of small holes in a water main, slowly draining value from the enterprise. Or they can appear suddenly as major cracks in a dam and threaten the entire business.” This statement can be taken both literally and figuratively. In the literal sense, a dam, for instance, could truly develop cracks which could threaten its existence, leading to an eventual collapse. Figuratively, however, government or industry may ignore some tell-tale or insidious early warning signs to its detriment in some of the energy options. How those companies involved in the renewable energy value chains would be held accountable is a subject of importance. Is it possible that executives who preside over the mishandling of toxic wastes could face jail time?
For those stakeholders who operate at the upstream side of the green energy value chain, particularly the primary extraction, would they be constrained by the stringent demand that their heavy duty machines should refrain from using petrol or diesel, for instance, and depend only on renewable sources? How would that affect or be affected by cost of operations, bottom line, efficiency and profitability? The new environmental thinking is, ipso facto, influenced by moral and business imperatives which could sometimes be in conflict as its business side gains momentum based on emerging commercial benefits. Although the former may have been a springboard, the latter seems to have taken pre-eminence. The implication is that the driving forces behind the new energy rat race will be mostly such that economic considerations will subsume moral concerns, which will create more wealth and wealthy people on one hand and more poverty and poor people on the other. In essence, the greater wealth creation will be at the expense of the poor in many cases, with more and widespread operational risks. According to the authors of Green to Gold, “the Green Wave, with its threats and opportunities, rises within a business landscape already in the throes of radical change.”
Some areas of concerns are already apparent in many parts of Africa where extraction of primary raw materials for energy transition is a major economic activity. There are social problems involving artisanal miners and industrial multinational miners operating side by side in some places or in stiff competition in some others. One of the crises that will last into the era of renewable energy is the possible displacement of the poor artisanal miners in many countries of Africa, thus jeopardising their livelihoods. Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo or DRC) is a poster child for this portent. Mark Dummett, Head of Business, Security and Human Rights at Amnesty International, was quoted in The Financial Times of May 28, 2020, as saying that “artisanal mining is a lifeline for millions of impoverished people in the DRC. We need to see companies working with the authorities to formalize it – make it safer, remove children, provide miners with a fair price.”
It has been reported that more than 70 per cent of the world’s production of cobalt takes place in the DR Congo, of which 15 to 30 per cent comes from so-called artisanal and small-scale mines where independent miners use their own resources to extract the mineral. There are widespread reports linking the sourcing of cobalt from the DRC to major human rights risks. With the prevalence of artisanal and small-scale mining in the cobalt supply chain, challenges for establishing responsible sourcing practices arise. Centre for Effective Global Action, UC Berkeley, in the report of a study published in 2017, observed that the communities of artisanal miners in DR Congo are generally vulnerable to income shocks, capture a significantly smaller price for their outputs than traders are paid further downstream in the supply chain of DRC. It added that 11 per cent of the children, below the age of 18 in the areas under study work outside of the house, of which 23 per cent work in the mining sector. This raises moral and social issues around the emerging renewable energy sources.
The sustainability of cobalt is an important emerging issue because this critical base metal is an essential component of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. More than half of the world’s cobalt mine production comes from the Katanga Copperbelt in DR Congo, with a substantial proportion, estimated at 15 to 20 per cent being extracted by artisanal miners. The health implications of cobalt mining are worrisome. An environmental health study performed in the town of Kolwezi showed that people living in a neighbourhood that had been transformed into an artisanal cobalt mine had much higher levels of cobalt in their urine and blood than people living in a nearby control area. In children with the most pronounced differences, evidence of exposure-related oxidative DNA damage was found. It is already recognised that industrial mining and processing of metals has led to severe environmental pollution in the region. This field study provides novel and robust empirical evidence that the artisanal extraction of cobalt that prevails in the DR Congo may cause toxic harm to vulnerable communities. It strengthens the conclusion that the currently existing cobalt supply chain is not sustainable.
Denials and disclaimers are part of the emerging renewable energy corporate promoters’ tactics, even when caught red-handed. Recently, Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla were named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in Washington DC by human rights firm International Rights Advocates on behalf of 14 parents and children from the DR Congo. The plaintiff, Siddharth Kara, an anti-slavery economist, accused the companies of aiding and abetting in the death and serious injury of children who were allegedly working in cobalt mines in their supply chain. Cobalt is gaining more relevance as an essential component to power the rechargeable lithium batteries increasingly used in millions of products sold by Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla every year. Although the Swiss mining giant Glencore is also at the centre of a US legal case against big tech linked to child labour in the DR Congo, it has issued spirited statements of denials. What is not hidden, however, is that Tesla – an automaker – is planning to use cobalt from Glencore’s mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to make lithium-ion batteries at Gigafactories in Berlin and Shanghai. The linkage is therefore obvious. The voracious demand for cobalt, driven by craving for inexpensive handheld technology in the past decade, has grown exponentially and is expected to keep growing. This will put a lot of pressure on the environment of DR Congo as the source of more than 60 per cent of global cobalt supplies. Yet – and very sadly – the DR Congo remains one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world, popular for its perennial militia attacks, particularly in the Ituri and Kivu provinces.
Mining has not been environment-friendly in its various ramifications, not least in the quest for minerals for powering green energy in a circumstance of corruption, poor official oversight and non-compliance with best practices. The South African Human Rights Commission has released a scathing report on the damage mining in the country is posing to human rights. It concluded that “the mining sector is riddled with challenges related to land, housing, water, [and] the environment,” and accused the government as responsible for the harm done to mining-affected communities because of its “failure to monitor compliance, poor enforcement, and a severe lack of coordination.” Those environmental rights activists who complain about cutting down forests to establish plantations of tree crops may have their explanations in defence of deforestation prompted by search for precious metals needed for powering renewable energy. But there are findings on mining, including for the much-sought-after metals needed in the new ‘green wave.’ Negative impacts on environments resulting from changes in land use – including deforestation, erosion, contamination and alteration of soil profiles, contamination of local streams and wetlands, and an increase in noise level and dust – are possible consequences of mine exploration, construction, operation and maintenance.
It is rather worrisome that the third world mining operations continue to present varying degrees of hazard to the health and well-being of those working in and living around the mines in the forms of common respiratory illnesses such as asthma and tuberculosis, silicosis or pneumoconiosis as a result of inhalation of the silica dust particles resulting from the mining and processing of copper. Copper smelting often releases large volumes of low concentration sulphur dioxide that is discarded, leading to soil pollution from acid rain resulting from the combination of rain and SO2 that cause damage to crops, trees and buildings within the areas around the smelting plant. Mining continues to be a dangerous activity, whether large-scale industrial mining or small-scale artisanal mining. Its consequences on the environment remain the same for old-time uses as well as for the processing of the raw materials for generating renewable energy. Its attraction could further complicate things for Africa if armed non-state actors have control over them. In the rush towards renewable energy, Africa needs a well-coordinated strategy to protect the continent from perverse and irresponsible extraction of the proven metals relevant to the ‘green wave’ as well raise its bargaining power to avoid remaining vulnerable to the rising global demands that could hurt the continent on the long run.