(Originally published 2022 | 03.18)
On the shore of the Congo River in Kinshasa sits the Fleuve Congo Hotel, a five-star hotel with a weekly pool party in a country where most people subsist on less than $2 a day. The hotel hosts an ongoing stream of prominent guests, including the former NBA All-Star Dikembe Mutombo, the Senegalese-American musician Akon, and the founder of the Blackwater private-security firm, Erik Prince, as well as investors from Western Europe, Russia, and China. The Fleuve’s high-profile residents typically come to the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.) after the country’s main source of wealth—its minerals. But they’re not usually there for diamonds or other precious stones; most are there to compete for the country’s stores of cobalt. The D.R.C. has more of it than any other country in the world, which is now driving geopolitical competition there, not just among businesses but between the U.S. and Chinese governments. Why cobalt?
Lisa Sachs is the director of the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment at Columbia University and the vice-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Mining & Metals. According to Sachs, cobalt—along with lithium, copper, nickel, and other critical minerals, as they’re called—are essential for building vitally important new technologies, particularly for the kind of products necessary to reduce fossil-fuel consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions. Critical minerals are the main building blocks of electric-vehicle batteries and potentially key for producing, distributing, and storing clean, renewable energy. And yet, Sachs says, mining these minerals comes with substantial environmental and social costs. The mines for them tend to be powered by fossil fuels, and they tend to deplete and contaminate local water supplies, worsening global warming both directly and indirectly. In the D.R.C. specifically, cobalt and other minerals are often mined by child laborers and under dangerous conditions. Globally, China now controls much of the mining of critical minerals, particularly lithium and cobalt, which has led to a complex geopolitical dynamic around a type of natural resource likely to become only more important.
Michael Bluhm: Why are critical minerals so important?
Lisa Sachs: A lot of people don’t realize that meeting society’s material needs in the coming decades will require a tremendous volume of mined materials. The world’s population continues to grow, and it’s urbanizing, meaning more construction, more power grids, more fiber optic cables, and so on.
The massive energy transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources will take a huge amount of mined materials for generation, transmission, distribution, and storage—for solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries. Each component of the energy transition needs minerals. Critical minerals are essential components of those technologies, especially—but not only—for the energy transition.
There isn’t one agreed set of critical minerals. Each country has a list of them; the lists overlap, but they’re not the same. They include cobalt, nickel, copper, lithium, manganese. It’s not a static, closed list, though. The materials we need are sure to change. We’re constantly innovating for efficiency, or when the supply chain is expensive or risky, so technologies are evolving and the universe of critical minerals and the demand for critical minerals is always in flux.
Bluhm: You say demand for these minerals will increase. What’s driving the business of critical minerals now?