A belated global transition to electric vehicles is underway, but though the environmental cost of driving those cars is substantially less than using gasoline, the process of producing them—extracting materials like lithium and aluminum and transforming them into auto components in industrial facilities around the world—can still be enormously costly to the global environment, the atmosphere, and the people who work in those mines, refineries, and factories and live in communities surrounding them.
Climate and Indigenous rights groups are trying to put pressure on global automakers to clean up their act. In the first of an annual series of rankings released today, a coalition of 11 environmental organizations including the Sierra Club and Transport and Environment, and pro-Indigenous groups such as Cultural Survival, scored 18 of the world’s biggest makers of EVs—both legacy carmakers and new entrants—according to the environmental footprint and human rights impact of their EV supply chain, based on publicly available information like quarterly shareholder reports.
“This transition to electric vehicles really provides an opportunity for automakers to not only bring cleaner options to consumers, but to also clean up their supply chains,” says Erika Thi Patterson, the auto supply chain campaign director at Public Citizen, one of the organizations supporting the report. Supply chains, for example, often make up over 90% of a company’s greenhouse gas emissions impact alone. “We want to drive competition upwards.”
The ideal car, according to the ranking’s methodology, would have “a fossil-free supply chain and the lowest possible negative impact on human health, biodiversity and resource depletion, and ecosystem resilience,” while also respecting the rights of workers, Indigenous peoples, and local communities.
The world’s largest seller of cars, Toyota, ranked low on the list, dragged down in particular by its sustained lobbying campaigns against climate legislation. The car company has lagged behind competitors in committing to phase out gasoline vehicles, though that operational fact is less relevant to this list primarily focused on supply chains.
Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile, ranked highest based on a combination of its environmental commitments and human rights scores. The German car maker has invested in zero-carbon steel maker H2 Green Steel (steel production, particularly from coal-fired blast furnaces, is responsible for a staggering 8% of all of humanity’s emissions). The company is also requiring all its components suppliers to be carbon neutral by 2039.
Ford was the highest ranked American company on the list, coming in second, thanks to a high score in “human rights and responsible sourcing.” A report linking aluminum Ford uses to a refinery in Brazil that’s been alleged to have sickened thousands of people, published by Bloomberg last month, however, wasn’t included in this year’s analysis because the information came after a cutoff date of Aug. 1, 2022, but will be factored into next year’s report, according to the study authors.
Notable too was the placement of pure-play EV makers like Tesla on the list—the U.S. based automaker ranked 9th. Despite tending to have more helpful lobbying engagement on climate than companies that still make gasoline vehicles, they didn’t tend to have better metrics in terms of supply chain ethics and environmental impacts. Tesla, for instance, ranked poorly with respect to environmental impacts from sourcing its materials.
And as a group, Asian automakers, from Chinese EV-maker BYD to Kia in South Korea and Mitsubishi in Japan, tended to score poorly, a fact that may have to do with an insular corporate culture, which gives the public little opportunity to see what they are doing and how they can improve, and consequently offers little public information to go off of in the rankings. “It’s a business norm,” says Conor Constable, a stewardship manager at PIRC, which conducted the research for the rankings. “Disclosure tends to be less in Asian companies in particular.”
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