Lithium Mining: The Environmental Cost is Toxic and Clear

The Lithium Fever: What Is the Price of Europe Going Green? Insights into Lithium Mining.

By Ana Marković

The goal is clear – achieving climate neutrality by 2050. To do this, the EU needs to get the carbon out of its transport sector, which produces around a quarter of its CO2 emissions. The plan is to replace fossil fuel cars with electric ones, but this will require large amounts of lithium, an essential component in electric car batteries. 

However, Europe doesn’t produce lithium on its own. Instead, it imports the mineral from Chile, the US, and Russia. To source the necessary extra amounts, the EU plans to exploit some of the mineral reserves located in its own territory. Consequently, a series of mines are set to open across Europe in the next few years. 

The True Cost of Lithium Mining

While Europe races on lithium fuel to reach net zero, it doesn’t seem to be aware of the damage it leaves behind. Lithium mining leaves a significant ecological footprint on soil, water, and air. Also, it leads to increased carbon emissions, the very thing the EU is trying to eradicate. 

Typically, lithium mining requires consuming large amounts of water, which could lead to draughts during summer months and floods during rainy seasons. Also, the chemical cocktails used to extract lithium from the ground could find its way into nearby streams, rivers, and water supply, thus posing a danger to wildlife and health. 

Defense by the Mining Industry

Mining companies defend their operations by claiming they now use clean, eco-friendly technology that significantly reduces water consumption. One such example is Vulcan Energy Resources, a mining company that is set to lead a lithium project in Germany’s Upper Rhine Valley. The plant would extract lithium from subterranean brines which produce geothermal energy. The extraction is done underground, without gasses or fluids being released. 

However, that doesn’t mean that this type of mining technology doesn’t have an ecological footprint. It also doesn’t account for the people that are going to be affected by mining operations.

Lithium mining: Viewpoint Kapija Podrinja, Ovčinja, Serbia.
Viewpoint Kapija Podrinja, Ovčinja, Serbia.
Less than 100km from the planned lithium mine.
Photo by Milica Spasojevic on Unsplash.

A Threat to the Environment in Serbia

The communities living near lithium mines will have to sacrifice their way of life for the sake of Europe’s green transition. Take, for example, Jadar Valley, in western Serbia. This is a fertile area inhabited mainly by farmers who make a living growing raspberries and keeping bees. According to Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, Jadar Valley has enough lithium to produce 1 million EV batteries, which would meet Europe’s needs for several decades. 

Rio Tinto’s plan was to invest 2.4 billion dollars to build Europe’s biggest lithium mine in Jadar Valley. The project was opposed by the locals not only because of the inevitable environmental damage it would cause, but also the fact that people would need to leave their homes, give up the work they do, and break all bonds with the land they are so firmly attached to. 

After months of protests taking place across the country, the Jadar Valley project was canceled. At least, that’s the official response. However, people remain suspicious of the corporation’s (and the government’s) true intentions as they already invested too much to back down, so the battle may not be over just yet. 

Demonstrations Elsewhere in the World

People in Serbia aren’t the only ones raising voices at the development of lithium mines.

Portugal saw similar resistance, with over a thousand people protesting against lithium mining last October.

A month later, the already mentioned Vulcan Energy plant decided to temporarily stop its lithium project in Germany after the community opposed its operations. 

The Focus on Lithium vs Sustainable Alternatives

Analysts say that the answer to decarbonising the transport sector lies in reducing the use of vehicles altogether, electric or not. Strategic city planning that allows for shorter walking distances and more opportunities for cycling would help minimize CO2 emissions. 

Also, instead of lithium, electric vehicles could be powered by sodium batteries, as sodium can be accessed more easily and it has a lower ecological footprint. Alternatively, electric cars could run on clean hydrogen, which is another promising area of research. All options need to be explored, otherwise the EU might end up trading the fossil fuel crisis for a lithium one.