Lithium, a key component of electric car batteries, has become a strategic resource in the global race to achieve the energy transition. Europe, which currently relies on imports from a few countries, is looking to develop its own lithium production and become a major player in the market. However, the environmental and social impacts of lithium mining pose significant challenges for the continent.
Lithium is a chemical element that is found in various types of mineral ores, but mostly in saltwater brine basins. It is a soft, silver metal that can store electricity efficiently and is used to make lithium-ion batteries, the most common type of rechargeable batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries are widely used in consumer electronics, such as laptops and smartphones, but also in electric vehicles, which are seen as a key solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, the demand for lithium will increase by 18 times by 2030 and by 60 times by 2050, driven by the growth of the electric vehicle market.
Europe, which has set ambitious targets to phase out fossil-fuel cars and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, is expected to need 35 times more lithium in 2050 than today, according to a study by KU Leuven, a Belgian university. However, the continent currently imports most of its lithium from a few countries, such as Australia, Chile, Argentina and China, which dominate the global production and refining of the mineral. This creates a dependency and a vulnerability for Europe, which wants to secure its own supply of lithium and become a leader in the battery industry.
How is Europe planning to produce its own lithium?
Europe has several lithium deposits in its subsoil, mainly in Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, Finland and the Czech Republic. Some of these deposits have been known for decades, but were not exploited due to low demand and prices. However, with the surge of interest in lithium, several mining projects have been launched or revived in recent years, aiming to extract and process the mineral locally.
One of the most advanced projects is in Portugal, which has the largest lithium reserves in Europe and the sixth largest in the world. The country plans to start producing lithium by 2023 and become the first European producer of battery-grade lithium hydroxide, a refined form of the mineral. The government has awarded exploration licenses to several companies, including the Australian firm Savannah Resources, which is developing the Mina do Barroso project in the north of the country.
Another promising project is in France, where the mining giant Imerys announced plans to open the country’s first lithium mine in the Allier department in 2028. The company discovered large amounts of lithium in its existing clay mine and hopes to produce 34,000 tonnes of lithium per year, enough to power 700,000 electric vehicles. The project has received support from the French government, which considers lithium a strategic resource for the energy transition.
Other European countries are also developing their own lithium projects, such as Spain, which has the second largest reserves in Europe and is home to the Valdeflórez project in the Extremadura region, led by the Spanish company Infinity Lithium. Germany, which has a strong automotive industry and a high demand for batteries, is exploring the possibility of extracting lithium from geothermal brine in the Upper Rhine Valley, a project led by the German company Vulcan Energy Resources. Finland, which hosts the only operating lithium mine in Europe, is expanding its production capacity with the Keliber project in the Kaustinen region, led by the Finnish company Keliber Oy. The Czech Republic, which has the largest lithium deposit in Europe in the Cínovec region, is also planning to start mining the mineral by 2025, with the help of the Australian company European Metals Holdings.
What are the challenges and risks of lithium mining in Europe?
While Europe is eager to join the lithium rush and boost its green economy, the mining of the mineral is not without environmental and social costs. Lithium extraction and processing require large amounts of water, energy and chemicals, which can have negative impacts on the local ecosystems, biodiversity and communities.
One of the main concerns is the water consumption of lithium mining, especially in regions that are already facing water scarcity or stress. For example, in Portugal, the Mina do Barroso project is expected to use 1.2 million cubic meters of water per year, equivalent to the annual consumption of 10,000 people. This has raised fears among the local residents, who depend on agriculture and tourism for their livelihoods, and who have formed a movement called “Save Barroso” to oppose the project.
Another issue is the energy consumption and carbon footprint of lithium production, which can undermine the climate benefits of electric vehicles. For example, in Germany, the geothermal lithium project is expected to use 40 megawatts of electricity per hour, equivalent to the consumption of 10,000 households. However, the project claims to be carbon-neutral, as it will use renewable geothermal energy to power the extraction and refining process, and also produce excess heat and electricity that can be sold to the grid.
A third challenge is the social acceptance and regulation of lithium mining in Europe, which has a long history of mining conflicts and controversies. Many of the lithium projects face opposition from local communities, environmental groups and civil society organizations, who are concerned about the impacts on their health, quality of life and cultural heritage. Some of these groups have launched campaigns, petitions and lawsuits to stop or delay the projects, or to demand more transparency, consultation and compensation from the companies and the authorities.
Moreover, the legal and regulatory framework for lithium mining in Europe is still unclear and inconsistent, as there is no common European policy or legislation on the matter. Each country has its own rules and procedures, which can vary depending on the region, the type of mineral and the stage of the project. This creates uncertainty and complexity for the investors, the operators and the stakeholders, and can lead to conflicts and delays.
Lithium is a vital resource for the energy transition and the development of electric mobility in Europe. The continent has significant potential to produce its own lithium and reduce its dependence on imports, but also faces significant challenges and risks. The environmental and social impacts of lithium mining need to be carefully assessed and managed, and the legal and regulatory framework needs to be harmonized and clarified. The involvement and participation of the local communities and the civil society are also essential to ensure the sustainability and acceptability of the projects. Lithium mining in Europe is not a silver bullet, but a complex and delicate balance.