Electrification must look beyond how vehicles are powered

Technology holds the key to realising carbon targets and making the advancements that are needed to achieve global environmental security, BMW's senior expert sustainable supply chain management Claudia Becker argues.

Electrification must look beyond how vehicles are powered

As a car manufacturer, electric vehicles (EVs) are core to the low-carbon transition– electrification will be the most significant shift that has been seen in transport history since the launch of the combustion engine for domestic vehicle use. However, as we drive towards a greener future, it’s crucial we don’t allow the focus on cleaner fuels and low emissions to distract us from the wider production challenges.

Vehicles that roll off the production line are highly sophisticated machines packed full of powerful computers and cutting-edge technology. They are created from tens of thousands of parts and a vast array of materials. EVs require specific minerals in their circuit boards and engine systems and looking more closely at these quickly demonstrates the breadth of the sustainability challenge we must consider when committing to produce vehicles that are truly better for the planet.

Back in 2012 we took a thorough look at all the materials needed for automotive production and assessed the full environmental risks and impacts. Full traceability has taken years and this June, the BMW Group announced that we are making raw materials, often known as ‘conflict minerals’ and some of the most environmentally impactful materials, a special focus of our sustainability strategy. This includes ores where mining or trading is often associated with violations of environmental and social standards. Tungsten is an example of this. It is found not just in the vibration alarm of mobile phones and light bulb filaments, but also in the drill and milling bits of industrial machinery used in producing cars.

With tungsten we’ve taken sustainability one step further. We’re now recycling tools at plants in Germany and Austria saving seven tonnes of tungsten per year, lowering energy consumption by 70% and CO2 emissions by more than 60% compared to primary tungsten. For sourcing of tungsten, and tin, tantalum and gold (known as 3TGs), we survey suppliers about their supply chain from mine to smelter on an annual basis. This survey is part of the sector-specific sustainability questionnaire and forms an integral part of our procurement process. In addition, the BMW Group conflict minerals team provides training, information, and additional support for the suppliers to support good environmental and social practices through our supply chain.

Deep sea mining is another area of challenge and where cobalt, nickel and manganese, which are all critical for EV development, could be sourced in the future. From our perspective, we still do not have enough information about the environmental consequences of deep sea mining.

To address this, we have joined forces with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Germany, to commit, as a precautionary measure, not to use deep-ocean minerals until comprehensive scientific research into its impact can be conducted and the consequences for the environment are clearly assessed. The initiative remains open to other participants, and we would be delighted for other companies to join us – especially those in our own supply chains.

Regulation for deep seabed mining is not yet adopted by the International Seabed Authority. Responsible sourcing frameworks, like the OECD due diligence guidance, or responsible certification schemes, like the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA), cannot be applied to deep seabed mining practices. A moratorium on deep seabed mining is essential to have a proper evaluation of the risks and allow for robust regulations, now more important than before.

BMW Group’s goal is to align the future of the company with the future of our world. We are placing sustainability at the heart of our business and leading responsibility through the entire lifecycle of our vehicles. Ultimately, for us, circularity is the most important factor in achieving a climate-neutral footprint and we’ll rely ever more on resource-efficient closed-loop materials with the aim of significantly increasing the percentage of recycled materials in our vehicles. Currently we use up to 50% recycled aluminium, 25% recycled steel and up to 20% recycled thermoplastics and these will continue to increase going forward.

EVs will undoubtedly have a large and lasting impact on carbon reduction. However, as manufacturers, and as an industry, we must also stay focused on the wider challenges of sustainable production, supply chain and how we can ensure that every mineral, metal and material that goes into the construction of our vehicles is sourced, produced and recycled in a way that has minimal environmental impact. Ultimately it is this that will ensure we are producing vehicles that are climate friendly and fit for our future.

Claudia Becker is BMW’s senior expert sustainable supply chain management 

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