Energy transition: dilemmas and trade-offs
As governments promote electric vehicles to cut greenhouse gas emissions, a global race is underway to mine lithium – a key component in batteries. But lithium mining causes deep environmental damage and adversely affects communities living near mines. Anti-mining mobilisation recently scored a victory in Serbia, where campaigners forced the withdrawal of mining licences. But the greatest impact of lithium mining will likely be felt in Latin America, which holds most of the world’s deposits, and where communities excluded from power have little likelihood of being listened to. A deeper reflection is needed: responses to climate change that keep extractive and consumerist economic models intact are only going to perpetuate environmental destruction, social exclusion and rights violations.
Serbian campaigners have secured a crucial stay of execution against a new mine that threatens devastating environmental impacts. But knowing the zeal with which their government has pursued mining projects, they are not dropping their guard yet.
Their struggle has worldwide resonance for communities threatened by a new wave of extraction with supposedly green credentials: lithium mining.
The Serbian struggle
The proposed mine is in Serbia’s Jadar Valley, an area home to around one-fifth of the country’s agricultural production. The proposed miner is Rio Tinto, a global extractive giant, which in 2004 discovered a mineral it called ‘jadarite’. What makes jadarite valuable is that it contains borate, commonly used in chemical compounds, and lithium, widely used in batteries.
Rio Tinto quickly set about buying land from farmers and digging exploratory wells. It found a willing partner in the government, which in 2015 passed a law declaring the mining of boron and lithium, among other minerals, to be in the country’s strategic interest. The law made it easier for companies to get permits and put pressure on people to sell their land for little. Rio Tinto seemed firmly on course towards opening a massive mine.
But while some farmers in the Jadar Valley sold up to Rio Tinto, others refused. A local campaign highlighting the mine’s likely environmental impacts won national attention. It made clear that the mine put over 15,000 agricultural households at risk, threatened wildlife in the area’s two bird conservation zones and endangered important archaeological sites.
Evidence of environmental harm was already plain to see. Although the secrecy in which the development is shrouded made investigations difficult, these revealed that nothing grew around experimental wells. Armed with this information, campaigners filed a legal complaint accusing Rio Tinto of breaching Serbia’s environmental laws.
Campaigning and legal action combined with street-level response. Over successive weekends last December thousands blocked roads in protest. In response, Jadar Valley local authorities suspended their development plan and Rio Tinto paused work. As mass protests continued, in January the government withdrew the mining licences it had granted.
But campaigners are not celebrating yet. They see the government’s climbdown in the context of Serbia’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. They view the government as distancing itself from an unpopular policy for electoral benefit. The ruling coalition faces little organised opposition and with this course correction will be confident of retaining power.
But once the election hurdle is cleared, there may be little to stop the government reviving lithium mining. Campaigners are therefore pushing for a complete ban on lithium mining in Serbia.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Miroslav Mijatović is president of the Podrinje Anti-Corruption Team (PAKT), a civil society organisation working on anti-corruption and the promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms.
There are currently 172 mining exploration permits in Serbia, and lithium is being explored at 10 locations. The project that has progressed the most so far is the one in the Jadar Valley.
Initial investigations are taking place in other places across Serbia, so people all over have joined our fight in fear of what awaits them.
For now, the fight against Rio Tinto is taking place in the justice system. We have not yet entered the field of environmental protection because it is not yet clear which technological process will be used to separate lithium and boron. According to reputable experts and academics we have consulted with, it is almost impossible to extract lithium and boron without a severe environmental impact. Available data shows that over the estimated 60 years of the mine’s lifetime about 90 million tonnes of tailings – mining waste – will be deposited in the Jadar Valley.
All Rio Tinto contracts are labelled as ‘trade secrets’. The local community knew almost nothing about the project until a special-purpose area spatial plan for Jadar came to light. There are no real controls on what the company is doing because, believe it or not, Serbia only has three mining inspectors.
We helped the local community register their association, ‘We won’t give up Jadar’, and soon decided to start an online petition. We requested the help of experts and academics and activated as many public figures, including athletes and actors, as possible.
We cooperated with an opposition member of parliament who was able to secure a meeting with the prime minister. We showed her the 300,000 electronic signatures we collected and explained to her why we were against the mine, but her response was that we were against progress and that was the end of the dialogue.
However, the media began had started to pay attention, and when foreign television channels began to arrive in the Jadar Valley, we knew we were no longer alone.
As for legal action, there are already three complaints filed against the company. The main one is related to large-scale environmental pollution.
For months we toured the Rio Tinto wells in the Jadar Valley and found out that nothing grew around them, not even weeds. Inspection bodies did not react to our evidence, and then someone approached us with a compensation agreement drawn on behalf of Rio Tinto, in which the company recognised pollution from exploratory wells and offered to pay damages to the plot’s owner. We investigated and found five more such contracts, all classified as secret. There may be many more, because there are over 580 exploration wells in the Jadar Valley.
We filed a complaint against the company with the Prosecutor’s Office, attached the contracts, and requested an independent expert investigation to find out how many wells are leaking and what kind of pollution they produce.
The campaign connected with the public, and in the second week of protests against the scandalous Expropriation Bill, which the government tried to push through the National Assembly by urgent procedure, there were over 120,000 people on the streets.
In the face of many displeased people mobilised in an election year, the government reacted. It first withdrew the Expropriation Bill. Then it revoked the decree greenlighting Rio Tinto’s project and backtracked on the spatial plan for the special-purpose area designed for the project’s implementation, which had been illegally introduced.
It really was the fact that people mobilised in an election year that did the trick. This raises concerns that the government made what they view as a small temporary compromise to make protesters happy but everything will return to normal after the April election.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Miroslav. Read the full interview here.
A global dash for lithium
Serbia is just one of several places where this battle is being fought. There is a global race to mine lithium, because its use in batteries makes it key for the transition to electric vehicles. All plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions involve a switch from vehicles powered by fossil fuels to electric ones. This means more batteries and more lithium.
And yet it is impossible to mine lithium without harm. Lithium mining involves the use of toxic chemicals and requires huge amounts of water. It causes water scarcity among surrounding communities and threatens to poison what water remains. Mine waste can leak through the soil and into watercourses. This is a major concern in the floodplain of the Jadar Valley.
According to reputable experts and academics we have consulted with, it is almost impossible to extract lithium without a severe environmental impact.
However, demand for lithium is only rising. Electric vehicles are a cornerstone of the European Union’s (EU) plan to cut emissions: it wants 30 million such cars on the road by 2030 and plans to ban the sale of new fossil fuel-powered cars in 2035. Currently the EU imports all its lithium, mostly from distant continents, and is looking for sources closer to home. Serbia’s lithium is earmarked for Germany’s automotive industry.
It isn’t just Europe: economic powerhouse China wants electric vehicles to account for 40 per cent of all vehicle sales by 2030. Globally, sales are rising: electric vehicles now represent around nine per cent of the total car market, more than tripling market share over two years.
Amid this mining boom, Portugal is in a similar position to Serbia: it has major lithium deposits, and community groups oppose mining plans. In 2021, a group in the Covas Do Barroso district campaigned under the motto ‘no to the mine, yes to life’, successfully delaying the opening of an open-cast mine so that public consultations and environmental impact assessments could be held.
When the European Conference on Green Mining was held in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, in May 2021, environmental groups and local movements joined together to hand in a manifesto against lithium. They rejected the very notion that there could be such a thing as ‘green mining’, denouncing this as a false greenwashing narrative.
Latin America’s lithium triangle
Campaigns in Portugal and Serbia may have made headlines because they happened in Europe. They offered an opportunity to put pressure on European institutions, including the EU. But the world’s biggest lithium mining deposits aren’t in Europe but on the other side of the world: in a region known as the lithium triangle, across the salt flats of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. For a process that requires a huge volume of water, these are some of the driest places on earth.
The history of extraction in Latin America is plagued with violence. Time after time, communities who resist extraction see their rights violated and their voices go unheard. They are either unwillingly relocated or forced to live with devastating pollution that ruins their health and destroys their livelihoods. Indigenous groups have ancestral lands stolen. Communities never see any of the profits. Those who stand up for rights face incredible danger. Rights organisation Global Witness records that more environmental activists are murdered in Latin America than anywhere else, and most often in connection with extractive industries, particularly mining.
If the lithium rush continues, further rights abuses can be expected. The green consciences of those enjoying electric vehicles in the global north will likely not be troubled by faraway suffering in the global south.
For the countries with the largest lithium reserves, this is only beginning. Bolivia’s large reserves so far remain mostly unexploited. A deal between the government and a German company collapsed in 2019 following widespread protests. Last August, protests resumed as people blocked highways in response to a visit by a US company. Lithium mining is widely viewed as a foreign imposition that will bring little benefit to Bolivians. Communities close to potential sites demand a greater say in decision-making and call for a law that ensures any extraction benefits local people.
Extraction is more advanced in Chile, which supplies almost a quarter of the world’s lithium. But further expansion is being resisted. Indigenous communities near the Atacama salt flat are calling for the operating permits of miner SQM to be suspended until an environmental compliance plan is agreed. After some 11,000 years on the land, Indigenous communities are being deprived of access to essential water.
The communities accuse the government of violating international treaties on Indigenous consultation. In January, community representatives met with members of Chile’s Congress to seek a delay to the mining tendering process. Like Serbian campaigners, they are also taking to the courts: they submitted an amparo appeal – a writ to seek protection of constitutional rights – which Chile’s Supreme Court recently agreed to hear.
Chile’s progressive new government, led by former protest leader Gabriel Boric, starts work in March. A new constitution is being produced by an elected convention with Indigenous representation, and it is expected to include new environmental protections. At a potentially pivotal moment in Chile’s history, a key early test will lie in the government’s willingness to listen to the voices of Indigenous communities affected by lithium mining.
Time for alternatives
Lithium is far from the only problem. Awareness is growing of the heavy human rights costs associated with the extraction of cobalt, another key ingredient in electric vehicle batteries. Cobalt miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo live and work in conditions of modern slavery. Attention is also focusing on the environmental damage caused by mining for another battery component, nickel. In Indonesia, home of the world’s largest nickel reserves, water sources close to mines have been found to be riddled with a carcinogenic chemical.
In essence, governments and businesses face a dilemma: how to transition to technologies that cause less climate harm while respecting the rights of communities affected by extraction. But there’s little evidence this dilemma is being taken seriously.
It’s clear why mining companies are choosing to ignore the problem. They are attracted to mining, currently a booming sector, not only for financial reasons but also because, when it relates to electric vehicles, it offers an unmissable PR opportunity. Through lithium mining, they get to position themselves as ‘green’ companies leading the way out of the climate crisis. For this greenwashing to work, they need to play down the environmental and human rights impacts of mining as much as possible.
Civil society is rightly suspicious of proposed solutions to cut emissions that enable the further growth of the extractive sector. There really is no such thing as ‘green mining’.
Corporate greed – as exemplified by the determination of fossil fuel giants to cling onto their toxic business for as long as possible – is part of what got humanity into this trouble. More greed cannot be the solution.
Among the extractive giants, Rio Tinto has a particularly appalling record of human rights and environmental harm. In Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, its mining helped kickstart a bloody conflict and then for years it dragged its heels over even acknowledging its environmental damage – read our story here. In Australia, the company recently destroyed ancient sacred Aboriginal sites to extract iron ore.
This February, an internal investigation of Rio Tinto found that its damaging external behaviour was matched by a toxic internal culture characterised by racism, sexism and bullying. This isn’t a company that can be trusted to respect rights and it shouldn’t be allowed to paint itself as a saviour of the planet.
In their marketing, electric vehicles embody a promise to mitigate climate change without changing anything else: without any shift in consumption-based lifestyles. At the recent COP26 climate summit, far more attention was paid to electric vehicles than lower carbon alternatives such as public transport and cycling. Solutions that reduce demand rather than meet it are kept off the table. The current global economic model of extraction, production and consumption remains untouched.
Debate needs to focus not just on how we cut emissions, but on what kind of society we want. And it needs to start with an acknowledgment that the current economic model is unsustainable.
Ultimately, economic incentives don’t align with climate action. Mining companies have all the incentives to mine now and do it fast, while lithium is booming and before alternatives get off the ground. But we don’t have to simply go along with this.
More efforts need to go into developing and scaling less damaging alternatives to lithium-based batteries, and to retrieving and recycling lithium from existing batteries, much of which is currently incinerated or goes into landfills. Economic incentives are perverse because at present it is cheaper to mine lithium than recycle it.
Civil society is putting pressure on policy-makers to hold a high line against approving new mining projects and prioritise the environment and the rights of communities. It is also putting pressure on companies and their backers – such as financial institutions, investment firms and pension funds – including through legal action.
Ultimately, campaigners in Chile, Serbia and elsewhere aren’t asking for a choice between runaway climate change and the sacrifice of their communities and lands. They’re not seeking the same world, just with differently powered vehicles. They’re calling instead for humanity to live within planetary boundaries and make choices that don’t force the highest costs of climate change on those who already have the least. It’s time to hear them.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of Serbia should institute a full ban on lithium mining.
Rather than pursuing ‘green mining’, the EU should lead in the development of less harmful battery technologies.
Governments in countries with lithium deposits should commit to full and inclusive dialogue with local communities and agree plans to respect rights and deliver local benefits before proceeding with any development.
Cover photo by Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images