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A glimpse of the Congo’s copper belt: How to ensure sustainable raw materials for Europe

The iconic "Grand Place" (literally "Big Square") in the centre of Brussels, built mainly between 1696 and 1704. Its beautiful façades are a mixture of baroque and Renaissance architecture. During Christmas evening, there's a light festival at dusk, as well as christmas markets.

, The dire situation in Congolese mines is widely known. With no safety regulations or employment standards in place, a void emerges, which is all too often exploited by greedy corporate and state interests. Instances of child labor, and physical and sexual abuse are widespread, and mine collapses are frequent. This is the image that comes to mind when we discuss mining in the former Belgian colony. 

Last summer, as part of the development committee of the European Parliament, I went to the copper belt deep within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). 

To see the mines, their environmental impact, and the working conditions with my own eyes was my highest priority on this trip but what I saw was not what I expected. 

The vast stretch of mines, though seemingly similar from a distance, reveals a complex web of ownership and operations upon closer inspection.

I had the chance to visit three industrial mines owned by international corporations. According to representatives of the mining sector whom I met a few days before in Kinshasa, the volume of the industrial mining sector accounts for most of the production in Congo.

At the first mine – the Ruashi Mine In Lubumbashi – a highly professionalized copper mine that sources cobalt as a byproduct, we saw the whole copper production. All the workers had helmets and security shoes on and seemed to live a life just as you might expect of a mine worker, who wakes up in the morning, goes to work, and returns in the evening. Everything was organized, structured, and in good order. Accidents mostly happen when artisanal miners from the neighborhood enter at night and don’t follow the safety precautions.

A few days later, I had the chance to visit a little school run by an Italian NGO. They go to the illegal mines, take the children out to bring them to school and give them something to eat. Previously, many of these children scoured mines for cobalt fragments, selling them off to Chinese operators. In all of DRC, around 40,000 children are working in the mining sector. Ending child labor should be treated as a priority at the highest levels.

However, we cannot fight child labor, only by ensuring that mines are certified. We also must ensure that the large companies take responsibility for the local population. They have the power, they have the money, and they have the responsibility to build schools, hospitals, and public infrastructure because they are benefitting massively from the natural resources and mining that takes place in countries like Congo. 

The Rising Demand for Cobalt and Europe’s Stakes

Cobalt demand is soaring, growing annually by 10%. In 2030, it is expected this demand will already be double. The reason for this is that cobalt is a critical component for batteries, a key enabling technology for the carbon-neutral green economy. Cobalt enhances safety and longevity in batteries, and although it could be replaced in the future by another material, currently it is the most cost-effective way of producing cathodes that facilitate the flow of electric charge in a battery. That’s why around 60% of the demand for cobalt is due to the demand for cobalt-infused cathodes needed for the batteries. 

With the looming energy transition and the pivotal role of batteries in climate protection, battery production is projected to surge nearly 20-fold by 2030. Whoever controls access to cobalt could gain a decisive advantage in the race to a carbon-neutral economy – and deprive the competition of accessing critical raw materials.

The EU acknowledges this risk. The transition to renewable energy and mobility rests heavily on raw materials such as cobalt. As the demand for these materials grows, fostering partnerships with local governments becomes paramount. In a bid to counterbalance China’s influence, the EU’s Global Gateway strategy aims to direct investments to the region and to offer an alternative to Chinese-backed investments.

As legislators and responsible global citizens, the challenge we face is clear. Can we meet the growing demand while upholding our European values and principles? I believe we can, but we must forge strong alliances, prioritize multi-stakeholder approaches, and address issues head-on, such as child labor and environmental degradation.

The EU’s Vision for Batteries

The EU spearheads the transformation to a green, carbon-neutral, and sustainable economy through new laws on recycled content targets, corporate diligence rules, and sustainable raw material extraction. In the future, batteries will have to contain a calculation of their carbon footprint to incentivize producers aiming for the highest possible standards.

The new battery regulation will enforce minimum ecological and social standards for batteries, helping to end the unsustainable exploitation of material resources. This paradigm shift presents an opportunity for Europe to boost its battery production, enhance its global competitiveness, and create new green jobs.

The EU’s strategy is to ensure sustainability from the extraction of raw materials to the management of waste, covering the entire life cycle of batteries. There is a strong emphasis on recycling, ensuring that valuable materials recover. Ambitious recycling targets are in place: by 2026, a staggering 90% for cobalt, nickel, copper, and lead, and 95% by 2032.

The long-term vision is clear: reduce reliance on virgin materials through strategies that promote the durability and longevity of products. Reuse, repair, and recycling: the three Rs of sustainability. But it will take time until the current batteries are at the end of their life and can be materials for the next generation of batteries. In the meantime, we must source materials for batteries responsibly.

Towards a Sustainable Future

The EU’s proposals present a comprehensive roadmap, focusing on supply chain enhancements and risk mitigation. The aim is simple yet profound: foster partnerships with countries like the DRC, ensuring mutual growth and local social change. In Parliament, we, the Greens, have championed these priorities, making strides in recycling targets and calling for reducing the demand for raw materials to a genuine and functioning circular economy.

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