Rights groups have called on carmakers to do more to address abuses in their aluminum supply chains, including the destruction of agricultural land, damage to water resources and excessive greenhouse gas emissions affecting communities. in Africa, Asia and South America.
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch (HRW), along with Inclusive Development International (IDI), released a 63-page report detailing the consequences of aluminum production especially related to mining and bauxite refining of raw materials in countries including Guinea, Ghana, Brazil, China, Malaysia and Australia.
Aluminum is truly a blind spot for the car industry. There is a lot of focus on other materials you need to make electric vehicles like cobalt and lithium for electric batteries, but very little focus on the human rights impacts of aluminum, said Jim Wormington, senior African researcher at HRW, for Al Jazeera.
We think this needs to change because the car industry has a huge impact on mining companies and the wider sector. And if the car industry starts to take human rights and the environmental impacts of aluminum seriously, so will mining companies, he said.
As the world’s leading automobile manufacturers have publicly committed to addressing human rights abuses in their supply chains, they have done little to assess and address the human rights impact of aluminum production, HRW said in a statement. .
The report was based in part on correspondence with nine major car companies: BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Groupe PSA (now part of Stellantis), Renault, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo.
Three other companies BYD, Hyundai and Tesla did not respond to requests to participate in the studies.
Car companies used one-fifth of all aluminum consumed worldwide in 2019 and are projected to double their consumption by 2050, the report said.
This increase in the use of aluminum, Wormington said, will be a direct result of increased production of electric vehicles.
This is the contradiction with the many new technologies we need to combat climate change, including electric vehicles, he said. The reality is that they will be produced from mining-based raw materials.
So what is essential as the transition happens is that we have a conversation about how, if we had more mines, we would do mines in a responsible and human rights-friendly way, he said.
Destruction of agricultural lands, pollution of waterways
The report highlights how some processes related to aluminum production have dire consequences in local communities.
Bauxite, a red ore, includes surface level mines, which can destroy large areas of agricultural land.
In Guinea, which has the world’s largest bauxite deposits, a government study in 2019 predicted that over the next 20 years, bauxite mines would remove about 858 square kilometers (331 square miles) of agricultural land, destroying some 4,700 sq km (1,814sq miles)) of natural habitat, according to the statement.
Meanwhile, refining bauxite into aluminum, a step towards creating aluminum, creates large amounts of hazardous red mud that can contaminate waterways.
A group in the state of Brazils Para is currently suing a bauxite mine, refinery and aluminum smelter for allegedly polluting waterways in the Amazon basin.
The report also highlighted the intensive energy process of aluminum smelting, noting that China, a leading aluminum smelter, produced 90 percent of its aluminum through coal energy in 2018.
Overall, aluminum production is responsible for about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, he said.
While three German carmakers Audi, BMW and Daimler have encouraged their suppliers to join an industry-led certification program, the Aluminum Oversight Initiative (ASI), rights groups said the program does not have enough details and does not provide specific criteria for evaluating companies’ response to key human rights issues.
The authors of the reports noted that some car companies have taken further steps to address problems in the aluminum supply chain since they were contacted by rights groups.
In May, Drive Sustainability, a group of 11 car companies, including BMW, Daimler, Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo, launched an initiative to assess human rights risks in the production of aluminum and nine other materials first.
In a statement, Natalie Bugalski, legal and policy director at Inclusive Development International, said the steps should be just the beginning of a broader effort by the car industry to address the impact of human rights on aluminum production.
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