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Rights groups have called on car manufacturers to do more to address abuses in their aluminium supply chains, including the destruction of farmland, damage to water sources and excessive greenhouse gas emissions that affect 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 fallout from aluminium production – particularly related to mining and refinement of the raw material bauxite – in countries including Guinea, Ghana, Brazil, China, Malaysia and Australia.
“Aluminum is really a blind spot for the car industry. There’s been a lot of focus on other materials that you need to make electric vehicles like cobalt and lithium for electric batteries, but very little focus on the human rights impacts of aluminum,” Jim Wormington, senior Africa researcher at HRW, told Al Jazeera.
“We think that needs to change because the car industry has a huge amount of influence over mining companies and the sector more broadly. And if the car industry starts to take the human rights and environmental impacts of aluminum seriously, so will mining companies,” he said.
While the world’s leading automakers “have publicly committed to addressing human rights abuses in their supply chains, they have done little to evaluate and address the human rights impact of aluminum production”, HRW said in a statement.
The report was partially based on correspondences with nine big 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 a fifth of all aluminium consumed worldwide in 2019 and are forecast to double their consumption by 2050, the report said.
That increase in aluminium use, Wormington said, will be a direct result in the increased production of electric vehicles.
“That’s the contradiction with many new technologies that we need to fight climate change, including electric vehicles,” he said. “The reality is that they’re going to be produced from raw materials that rely on mining.”
“So what’s essential as that transition happens is that we have a conversation about how, if we’re going to have more mining, we’re going to have mining in a responsible and human rights-protecting way,” he said.
Farmland destruction, waterway pollution
The report underscores how several processes related to aluminium production have dire consequences on local communities.
Bauxite, a red ore, involves “surface level mining”, which can destroy large swaths of farmland.
In Guinea, which has the world’s largest bauxite deposits, a government study in 2019 projected that over the next 20 years, bauxite mining would remove about 858 square kilometres (331 square miles) of agricultural land, destroying some 4,700sq km (1,814sq miles) of natural habitat, according to the statement.
Meanwhile, refining bauxite into alumina, a step towards creating aluminium, creates large amounts of hazardous “red mud” that can pollute waterways.
A group in Brazil’s Para state is currently suing a bauxite mine, a refinery and an aluminium smelter over the alleged contamination of waterways in the Amazon basin.
The report also highlighted the energy-intensive process of smelting aluminium, noting that China, a leading aluminium smelting country, produced 90 percent of its aluminium through coal power in 2018.
Overall, aluminium production is responsible for about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it said.
While three German car manufacturers – Audi, BMW, and Daimler – have encouraged their suppliers to join an industry-led certification programme, Aluminum Stewardship Initiative (ASI), the rights groups said the programme lacks “adequate detail and do not provide specific criteria to assess how well companies respond to key human rights issues”.
The report’s authors noted that some car companies have taken further steps to address problems in the aluminium supply chain since being contacted by the rights groups.
In May, Drive Sustainability, a grouping of 11 car companies, including BMW, Daimler, Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo, launched an initiative to assess human rights risks in the production of aluminium and nine other raw materials.
In a statement, Natalie Bugalski, the legal and policy director at Inclusive Development International, said the steps should be just the beginning of a “wider effort by the car industry to address the human rights impact of aluminum production”.