Lithium mining has been controversial in Serbia and Portugal, but it is integral to Europe's energy transition.
Europe's desire to wean itself off fossil fuels and end its reliance on Russian energy is not only going to involve a sea change in consumer habits, but it is also going to require a lot of lithium.
Given that the Old Continent barely produces any of the metal: is it just swapping one dependency for another?
European leaders have extolled the virtues of the New Green Deal which plans for the 27-country bloc to become the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. To achieve this, the EU aims to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to the 1990s level, bring emissions from new cars by 2035 down to zero and boost its share of renewables in the bloc's energy mix to 40%.
Lithium is increasingly used for batteries in electronics from smartphones to television as well as to store energy produced by solar panels and wind turbines and in electric cars.
According to the World Bank, the production of minerals, such as graphite, lithium and cobalt, would need to increase by nearly 500% by 2050 in order to meet climate goals while EU officials estimate that to achieve climate neutrality by mid-century, the bloc will require 18 times more lithium than it currently uses by 2030 and almost 60 times more by 2050.
Yet, Europe only has one lithium mine, in Portugal, and the very vast majority of its needs is currently met by imports.
About 87% of unrefined lithium the EU sources comes from Australia — the rest from Portugal — while Chile, the US and Russia provide 78%, 8% and 4% respectively.
China is also a particularly big player. Although it has about an estimated 7% of the world's reserves in lithium, 13% of the lithium extracted in 2019 was in China while over half of the lithium extracted that year was processed in the country.
More than 70% of the lithium-ion batteries that entered the market last year were produced in China.
Brussels is aware of this dependency and added lithium to its list of critical raw materials list in 2020.
A Commission spokesperson acknowledged to Euronews that "the production and refining of lithium are heavily concentrated in a handful of foreign countries, which raises our vulnerability to various supply risks."
They added that "given the economic and technological relevance of this resource, as well as the external dependencies it generates, it is our responsibility to ensure that the European economy can benefit from a sustainable and resilient supply of lithium."
"Although the EU will continue to cultivate its international partnerships, significant lithium extraction potential exists within our borders and its exploitation could create thousands of jobs. Developing local lithium mining and processing operations will not only enhance our strategic autonomy and reinforce our economy, but will also allow us to better monitor and contain the environmental impacts of mining industries, which are far more difficult to control beyond the EU’s borders," they said.
Opposition to mines
There are currently 10 potentially viable lithium projects in the EU: three in Portugal, two in Spain and Germany each, with the remaining three in the Czech Republic, Finland and Austria respectively.
For Rene Kleijn, associate professor at the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML) at Leiden University, "if all these plants become operational, it would probably be enough for our own supply."
Problem solved, then? Well, not quite.
Getting all these projects off the ground will not necessarily be easy. A €2.2 billion lithium mine project in Serbia was shelved earlier this year after strong local opposition over environmental concerns. There is also fierce opposition to lithium mining in Portugal.
The mining process for lithium is primarily done in two ways. There is the traditional open-pit approach with the metal extracted from hard rock and the second one involves pumping huge amounts of underground water to the surface to remove lithium from the briny liquid that comes up as the water evaporates.
Both are seen as disruptive to the landscape and local population with a potential risk of air and water pollution. Using water to extract lithium is also controversial as water becomes more scarce in some areas due to climate change. Large parts of Portugal and Spain, for instance, have been suffering through a winter drought resulting in near-depleted reservoirs.
But there is a third, greener, way of mining lithium, called Direct Lithium Extraction and that is being implemented for the potential project in Germany. It relies on geothermal energy to pump the brine to the surface to allow for the extraction of lithium before being pumped back into the underground geothermal reservoir.
From extraction to production
Mining however is just the tip of the iceberg. Once extracted, lithium needs to be refined, batteries made and eventually recycled.
In fact, the latter is really where lithium shines.
"One of the largest sources of pollution in Europe and CO2 emissions is road transport," Julia Poliscanova, Vehicles & e-mobility lead at Transport & Environment, a clean transport campaign group, told Euronews,
Transport generates about a quarter of the EU's total emissions with road transport accounting for about 70% of them.
"The best way to decarbonise one of the largest climate problems is electrification, and for that, we need batteries. And for that, we need lithium.
"However, it is indeed important to stress that any mining, any raw material extraction, oil, nickel, lithium, gas comes with an impact. When it comes to lithium, the impact per car is significantly less so. When you have a car, you would burn 17,000 litres of oil over the use of that car," she said.
"For a battery, an electric vehicle, you need about five or six kilogrammes of lithium that you can then recycle and reuse again and again. You just need to get it into your first batteries and then after some time, it can become a circular loop. So the impact of lithium is significantly less than the impact of oil."
US and China move faster
But again Europe is running behind on the entire supply chain infrastructure.
The European Battery Directive of 2006 was written before lithium-ion batteries became increasingly prominent due to a more lukewarm approach towards fighting climate change then and thus did not set any targets for the recycling of lithium. Nowadays, almost no lithium is recovered in the EU, whereas recycling efficiencies are estimated at about 95 % for cobalt and nickel, and 80 % for copper.
"We could have anticipated this much earlier. For example, in the US we now have policies that basically come from Cold War times that are now being implemented by President Biden in order to secure supply chains for batteries, and electric vehicles," Kleijn said.
Washington's Defence Production Act allows the White House to exert control over domestic industries in times of crisis. It was used by President Trump to limit exports of medical goods at the start of the pandemic and by Biden to accelerate vaccination.
It has now once more been invoked by Biden "to secure American production of critical materials to bolster our clean energy economy by reducing our reliance on China and other countries for the minerals and materials that will power our clean energy future" including lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, and manganese.
"This is really like hard core state interference in the markets to make sure that your industries are able to survive and also are not dependent on autocratic states or other states that you might not want to be dependent upon. And this is not the kind of policies that Europe is famous for," Kleijn argued.
"And I'm not even talking about China. I mean, in China, it's completely state-operated. Large Chinese state-owned mining companies are involved in mining all of these materials all over the world, whether it's cobalt in Africa or lithium in Australia. The biggest miner for the biggest Australian mining of lithium, for example, is one-quarter owned by a Chinese state-owned company. So you can see how the Chinese government is also heavily involved in securing the supply chains also overseas," he added.
2030 and beyond
Investments are being made across Europe in battery production to curb reliance from abroad.
About 24 lithium-ion battery cells giga-factories were expected to open across the EU between 2021 and 2030. Tesla, for instance, opened its gigafactory in Germany last month.
The association of European Automotive and Industrial Battery Manufacturers now forecasts that the EU battery market value will grow from €15 billion in 2019 to an estimated €35 billion in 2030 — with lithium-ion accounting for about half — while the global market value will grow from €90 billion to 150 billion.
Still, even in the best-case scenario, with all potential mines opening by 2025, "I don't see how Europe will achieve sufficiency in this decade," Poliscanova flagged.
"But moving after 2030, depending on how smart our policy on recycling is, Europe can become self-sufficient," she concluded.