DRC: Researchers call for more data on how emerging technologies affect human health & livelihoods to make more socially & ethically responsible decisions when developing, funding & using green technologies
‘Understanding cobalt’s human cost’ 17 December 2021
While driving an electric car has fewer environmental impacts than gasoline-powered cars, the production of the parts necessary for these green technologies can have dire effects on human well-being. After studying the impacts of mining cobalt — a common ingredient in lithium-ion batteries — on communities in Africa’s Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), an interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Northwestern University is calling for more data into how emerging technologies affect human health and livelihoods. Such data can inform policymakers, industry leaders and consumers to make more socially and ethically responsible decisions when developing, funding and using green technologies.
… “We have the framework and tools available to compare the environmental costs of automobiles that run on fossil fuels to battery-powered vehicles,” said Northwestern’s Jennifer Dunn, who led the study. “I can tell you the greenhouse gas emissions per mile for either one. But when it comes to the social effects, we don’t have the same capability for direct comparison. For many engineers, it’s easier to measure or calculate environmental effects than to understand the social conditions in a faraway country that they have never set foot in.” … For years, researchers have been conducting environmental life cycle assessments (E-LCA), in which they comprehensively and systematically calculate the environmental impacts of a product all the way from the extraction of raw materials required to make it to its use and ultimate disposal. More recently, researchers have attempted to develop similar frameworks to evaluate social life cycle assessments (S-LCA), which can be used to understand how emerging technologies affect human health and well-being.
… What Dunn and Young discovered was deeply troubling. They found cobalt mining was associated with increases in violence, substance abuse, food and water insecurity, and physical and mental health challenges. Community members reported losing communal land, farmland and homes, which miners literally dug up in order to extract cobalt. Without farmland, Congolese people were sometimes forced to cross international borders into Zambia just to purchase food. “You might think of mining as just digging something up,” Young said. “But they are not digging on vacant land. Homelands are dug up. People are literally digging holes in their living room floors. The repercussions of mining can touch almost every aspect of life.” Waste generated from mining cobalt and other metals can pollute water, air and soil, leading to decreased crop yields, contaminated food and water, and respiratory and reproductive health issues. Miners reported that working conditions were unsafe, unfair and stressful. Several workers noted that they feared mineshaft collapses.