Aluminium in the car industry causes human rights violations

Where once there was vital farmland, only holes in the ground remain after bauxite mining. (Source: IMAGO / Danita Delimont)

The automotive industry is one of the world’s largest consumers of aluminium. Around one fifth of the metal mined is used in vehicles every year. However, aluminium production in many countries goes hand in hand with environmental destruction and human rights violations, such as the destruction of farmland, massive CO2 emissions and displacement.

The human rights organisations Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Inclusive Development International (IDI) published a detailed report last week documenting the global aluminium supply chains of car manufacturers and their impacts in extraction and production countries. For this purpose, the organisations conducted field research for three years and spoke with nine major automotive companies: BMW, Daimler, Ford, Toyota and Volkswagen, among others. BYD, Hyundai and Tesla did not respond to the enquiries.

Aluminium production leaves its mark on countries where metal is mined and in nations that process the raw material. In large areas of land, farmland and natural habitats are destroyed, while local residents are displaced. Waste water pollutes rivers and lakes and leads to drinking water shortages. Car manufacturers who buy the aluminium have not yet sufficiently examined their supply chains for such abuses. However, first initiatives give hope.

Destroyed Land

Aluminium comes from mines, refineries and smelters in Guinea, Ghana, Brazil, China, Malaysia and Australia. The raw material is found in bauxite, which is a reddish aluminium ore. Even the extraction of bauxite causes problems. The ore is mined above ground and the mines occupy large areas. In the process, the mining companies often destroy farmland and deprive the population of its livelihood.

As a negative example, the report cites the West African country of Guinea, which has the world’s largest bauxite reserves at around 7.4 billion tonnes and has risen to become the world’s largest bauxite exporter in recent years:

According to a 2019 government study, bauxite mining will destroy 858 square kilometres of agricultural land in Guinea over the next 20 years. In the process, 4700 square kilometres of natural habitat would be destroyed. This will hit the inhabitants of the affected areas hard, because according to HRW, about 80 percent of them live from agriculture. Compensation is too low.

In Australia, vast tracts of land belonging to indigenous peoples have already fallen victim to decades of bauxite mining. According to the report, many of them are still fighting for adequate compensation.

Polluted water and air

Rivers and lakes would also be negatively affected by mining. Vegetation is removed and erosion occurs. Red mud, which is produced during the refining of bauxite, pollutes water bodies that communities rely on for drinking water and irrigation.
In the Brazilian state of Pará, a non-governmental organisation representing more than 11,000 people is suing a bauxite mine, a refinery and an aluminium smelter owned by Norsk Hydro. The company is accused of polluting waters in the Amazon basin.

Another side effect of aluminium production is massive greenhouse gas emissions: The raw material has to be refined and smelted at great energy expense. This is mainly done in plants in China. In 2018, these plants covered a good 90 percent of their energy needs from coal-fired power plants. This is another reason why aluminium production produces a particularly high level of emissions: According to the report, one billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent are emitted annually – that is about two percent of the total annual global greenhouse gas emissions.

More electric cars, more aluminium

Aluminium can be used to make cars lighter and thus more energy-efficient. Today, 18 per cent of global production goes to car manufacturers. The International Aluminium Institute (IAI) expects the industry’s consumption to double by 2050.

Aluminium is easy and energy-efficient to recycle; the process requires only one-tenth as much energy as the production of new material. Nevertheless, the automotive industry currently uses 58 per cent newly produced aluminium. The IAI expects this share to remain at 45 percent in 2050.

The European Aluminium Association sees the transition to electric mobility as the reason for the increased demand in the future. The lighter an electric car is, the greater its range. Economic consultancies assume that 12 million electric cars will be sold worldwide in 2025, and as many as 21 million in 2030.

The manufacturers are moving

The authors accuse car manufacturers that the negative impacts of aluminium production are still a “blind spot” for the industry. None of the companies interviewed had analysed their aluminium supply chains to understand the human rights risks therein. “Instead, car companies have prioritised supply chain due diligence on other materials that are key to electric vehicles, such as cobalt […],” the report says.

HRW and IDI call on companies to take more responsibility, to include binding human rights and environmental standards in their procurement contracts and to demand the same from their suppliers. Supply chains should be fully mapped and this information should be publicly available. This would allow communities and NGOs to share information on human rights risks and independent bodies to verify the information.

“They [car manufacturers] should use their ever-increasing buying power to protect the communities whose land and environment are being damaged by the aluminium industry,” says Jim Wormington, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Although the manufacturers Audi, BMW and Daimler encourage their aluminium suppliers to join the Aluminum Stewardship Initiative (ASI) certification programme, this step is not enough. The programme audits mines, refineries and smelters for compliance with human rights and environmental standards. “However, ASI’s human rights standards are not sophisticated enough and do not provide specific criteria to assess how well companies are responding to important human rights issues, such as the resettlement of communities displaced by mining,” Human Rights Watch criticises. The programme needs more transparency in the results and needs to better involve communities in the review process.

On the other hand, the authors give a positive assessment of a project by “Drive Sustainability”, an alliance of eleven automobile companies. The initiative launched a project in May to assess the human rights risks associated with aluminium production and nine other raw materials. In January, they contacted the aluminium producers’ association, the Aluminum Association, in this regard and expressed their concern about the situation in Guinea.

“Drive Sustainability” became active after Human Rights Watch and Inclusive Development International contacted the companies about the problems of aluminium production. (hcz)