Study: The automotive industry’s hunger for raw materials is at the expense of human rights


Bread for the World, Misereor and PowerShift call for a rapid “resource-friendly mobility change” that includes the entire automotive industry. “As before, the social, ecological and human rights costs of the extraction of raw materials for automobility remain outside the mainstream of the transport policy debate,” complained the three civil society organizations in the study “Fewer cars, more global justice “.

The writers want with the analysis make a contribution to showing such “outsourced and invisible costs”. The relevance of a responsible procurement of raw materials by car companies received more attention “with the drive turnaround” towards electromobility. The associated “massive increase in demand for metals such as lithium, cobalt, graphite and nickel has brought the human rights, social and ecological problems associated with the mining of these raw materials into focus”.

According to the authors, this perspective is long overdue: In Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, Congo, Zambia, China, Russia, Indonesia and the Philippines, raw material extraction is associated with numerous conflicts. The buyers thus destroyed the livelihoods for profits accumulated elsewhere. But metallic raw materials such as aluminum, bauxite and iron ore are “already being processed in large quantities” not only for the batteries of e-cars, but also for the body, housing, engine, exhaust systems and on-board electronics of every vehicle – including those with internal combustion engines. .

Current automobility is not only based on the burning of crude oil, “but also on the mining and processing of numerous raw materials,” says the study. Every car contained around several hundred kilograms of aluminum and steel. These two metals accounted for by far the largest proportion of the volume of the so-called construction materials. Their production from the ores iron and bauxite is extremely energy-intensive.

The experts calculate that global steel production from 1900 to 2015 caused an estimated nine percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions during this period. The aluminum sector is responsible for around two percent. Accordingly, the two metals also caused a considerable proportion of the CO2-Emissions along the entire value chain of a car, namely around 60 percent. At the same time, the mining of ores – which are imported to Germany mainly from Brazil and Guinea – is often associated with serious human rights violations and environmental pollution. Production is often cheapest “where human rights, social and ecological standards are lowest”.

“Human rights violations in the supply chain of the automotive industry in the extraction of raw materials are documented again and again,” explains Armin Paasch from Misereor. On January 25, 2019, a retention dam in Brumandinho, Brazil, broke and 271 people lost their lives. The iron ore from the operating group Vale is also used for cars “Made in Germany”.

In the meantime, the federal government has also described the automotive industry as a “human rights-relevant risk industry”. The German supply chain law passed in June is “an important first step in the right direction,” says Paasch. However, it must be improved in the coming legislative period and supplemented by ambitious EU rules.

The German car companies benefit from widely ramified production networks, which made it possible to outsource numerous components of production, according to the study. The first step in their lucrative value chain is always the extraction of raw materials. Car companies and their suppliers claimed a large part of these materials processed in Germany, most of which were imported. The quantities involved are considerable: the Federal Republic is the fifth largest consumer of metals in the world.

According to the authors, “despite the negative side effects”, for example via raw material-hungry batteries, “e-cars are the necessary alternative to the combustion engine”. According to another analysis, electric cars consume significantly fewer raw materials overall than combustion engines.

“Despite the climate crisis and raw material conflicts, the German auto industry is producing more and more and heavier cars,” criticizes the lead author of the new study, Merle Groneweg from the PowerShift association for an ecological, solidarity-based energy and global economy. In order to create more justice, the number of cars in Germany must be significantly reduced. What is needed are “fewer, smaller, lighter cars that are shared in use”.

At the same time, Amnesty International in Germany has called on the automotive industry to “fulfill their human rights due diligence obligations completely and transparently, including along the entire value chain of rechargeable batteries”. As a first step, companies should undertake as soon as possible to establish and adhere to principles for environmentally friendly battery production for e-mobility that is in line with human rights.

“The climate crisis is also a human rights crisis and leads, among other things, to serious violations of the rights to life, health or food,” emphasizes Mathias John, an expert on business and human rights at the organization. Many people would be driven from their homeland and inequalities would increase. The corporations should no longer accept that the human rights situation will deteriorate, for example through the value chains for batteries. Amnesty wants a guide for better production with the publication, which is published together with other organizations Powering Change give. It contains rules that range from the extraction of raw materials through processing and production to the use, disposal or recycling of the materials.


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