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Cobalt, the other side of the electric dream

CLIMATE / The cost of going carbon neutral painted in the nightmare colours of cobalt blue.

Going electric is portrayed by politicians keen to jump on the environmental bandwagon the world over as a key fix for hitting global carbon-neutral targets in the coming years.

Electric cars and other vehicles promise smooth, pollution-free, guiltless journeys that will also keep national car industries alive.

The European Union has signed up to a future it promises will be «green and digital» – with benefits for all its nearly 500 million citizens across 27 member states.

But what if tackling climate change was not so simple? What if there is no easy answer to living in harmony with the natural world while we attempt to turn down the thermometer of the Anthropocene age?

French director/producers Quentin Noirfalisse and Arnaud Zajtman tackle this question in their engaging documentary Cobalt Rush – the Future of Going Green.

Cobalt Rush: The Future of Going Green
Cobalt Rush: The Future of Going Green, a film by Quentin Noirfalisse, Arnaud Zajtman

A new gold rush

In French, its title, «Cobalt, L’envers due Rêve Electrique’ translates as – Cobalt, the Other Side of the Electric Dream – which actually would make a better international title. Perhaps the producers wanted to inject some idea of a new ‘gold’ rush and the wider impact of the term ‘going green’? That aside, this compelling documentary packs a lot into its 85 minutes.

Cobalt is a rare mineral that is an essential ingredient in the largely nickel-based batteries that will be the essential power component of all new cars sold in Europe from 2030. Ensuring a reliable supply – and verifying the environmental and working conditions in which it is produced – will be a key part of political and environmental strategies in the coming years. The push for industrial policies that will both support economic growth and address climate change is now among the top policies on the political agenda in Europe and many other parts of the world. It all sounds good, but there is a snag: 70% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo in conditions that are far from democratic.

70% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo in conditions that are far from democratic.

The Chinese are major investors in huge open-cast mines in the DRC that have been blamed for massive environmental pollution, poisoning rivers and farming lands and almost certainly associated with a massive rise in birth defects among the people who work in or live near the mines.

Sparse environmental and labour law observation – and the presence of a very large private so-called ‘artisanal’ mining sector that employs up to two million people working in highly dangerous deep shafts to extract the precious mineral – complicate due diligence laws imposed on western buyers of cobalt.

Noirfalisse brings his long experience as a journalist for top Belgian newspapers to the project, ensuring that the film delves deep and wide into its subject. Combined with Zajtman’s experience as a documentary producer, cobalt offers a comprehensive insight into the challenges of going green by transforming the car industry. Many documentaries on this subject focus exclusively on the issues of extraction deep in central Africa. Noirfalisse and Zajtman widen the view to include interviews with European car manufacturers, mining interests in Finland, where European deposits of cobalt exist, and the new generation of electric car battery manufacturers that are springing up.

Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commissioner for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight – a title that runs off the tongue as smoothly as an electric car – enthuses about the electric dream that will help combat climate change and keep jobs in Europe. But campaigners in the DRC and internationally point to the dangers of cobalt extraction and the pollution the mines cause.

Cobalt Rush: The Future of Going Green
Cobalt Rush: The Future of Going Green, a film by Quentin Noirfalisse, Arnaud Zajtman

No stone unturned

No stone is left unturned – miners working the artisanal pits complain of how little the Chinese buyers pay for their ore and how they barely earn enough to put bread on the table. In Finland, where the government is granting licences to mines that are seen as economic even where there is only one percent of cobalt in mined ore, environmental groups are springing up with similar concerns to those raised in the DRC, albeit in circumstances of substantially better environmental protections.

None of these concerns seems to bother the smooth-tongued representatives of cobalt brokers and analysts in London, who enthuse about the benefits of the artisanal sector for allowing flexibility of supply, although they concede that doing due diligence on suppliers from the Chinese processors of the ore can be «complicated.»

In Victorian England, poison was supplied in dark blue glass bottles – a colour still known as «cobalt blue.» This film suggests that weaning mankind off its addiction to destroying the environment for profit seems as unattainable an objective as ever.

Cobalt Rush: The Future of Going Green screens as part of the FIPADOC 2023 Impact Documentary programme.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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