The provenance of the bauxite or iron ore is not visible on the aluminum rim or the bonnet. If, for example, bauxite from the Sangaredi mine in Guinea, West Africa, is found in aluminum. Or the iron ore comes from the Brazilian city of Bromadinho, where a check dam ruptured in 2019 and left 271 people dead. Its operating group, Vale, also supplies German automakers, says Armin Paasch, who works with the Catholic aid organization Misereor and deals with business and human rights. “Time and time again, human rights violations in the extraction of raw materials from the automotive industry’s supply chain are documented,” says Paasch.
In line with the IAA motor show, aid organizations Misereor and “Bread for the World” have investigated the question of what raw materials are rolling on German roads – and what happens when those raw materials are extracted. Together with the Powershift organization, they investigated this not only in view of battery cells in electric cars, but also fossil burners. The conclusions are not really reassuring.
Take aluminum, for example: as a material in cars, it has become more and more attractive in recent years due to its low weight. According to figures from the Federal Institute of Geosciences and Raw Materials, 47% of all aluminum used in this country ends up in automobile manufacturing. During this time, there are on average 160 kilograms in each car. The study now indicates that 90 percent of the bauxite needed for this purpose comes from Guinea, for example from the Sangaredi mine. This, in turn, has recently been extended with the help of Germany, and the federal government is finally trying to supply the industry with raw materials.
Thus, the government responded soberly to a small question from the Greens in February: “The operation of the mine is associated with the effects on the inhabitants and the biodiversity typical of this sector, in particular through the large amount of land used”, writes -she. The consequences would be offset, for example by afforestation. The authors of the study, meanwhile, report dry wells and people resettled in lunar landscapes.
1.6 kilometers of cable are laid in a Golf
There are similar stories from other raw materials, but the origin is often even more difficult to trace. In the 1980s, a Golf 1 still covered 214 meters of cable, while the current version covered almost 1.6 kilometers. This increases the demand for copper, and it often comes from Latin America. Germany is the third largest importer. Here, too, there are “typical effects” such as the consumption of soil and water. Here, too, there are environmental disasters such as the rupture of a dam in the Mexican open-pit mine Buenaviste del Cobre in 2014, as well as the leaching of toxic heavy metals. The list of examples that organizations have compiled is long. It is always about environmental damage and local human rights. But you don’t see any of these problems in cars.
In industry, of course, the topic has been around for a long time – not least because of Germany’s supply chain law, which is due to come into force in 2023 and which makes the industry more responsible. It was not until Wednesday that the Daimler Group adopted a “Declaration of Principles for Social Responsibility and Human Rights”. They also want to deal responsibly with the environment in all areas. Raw materials must be “valued efficiently and sparingly in order to avoid and / or minimize negative consequences for the environment”.
However, according to the authors, the problem runs deeper: the sheer number of vehicles. “Despite the climate crisis and conflicts over raw materials, the German automobile industry is producing increasingly heavier cars,” explains Merle Groneweg of Powershift. “We need fewer, smaller, lighter cars that are used in common.” And while the study deals in depth and critically with the consequences of battery raw materials such as lithium and cobalt, it sees electric cars as an alternative. The energy density of batteries improves and their weight decreases. In addition, they do without a raw material that also has a major environmental impact: oil.