The European Commission and the Government of Serbia signed letters of intent on September 22nd of this year to initiate work on a strategic partnership in the areas of batteries and critical raw materials, including lithium, as stated by Demostat at the European Commission. The European Commission notes that EU legislation ensures the highest level of environmental and social protection, including mining projects, and that Serbia, as a candidate country for EU membership, is in the process of aligning its legislation with European standards.
The European Commission also emphasizes its commitment to developing processing and refining capacity at the location where resources are found, and it reminds us that the proposed Critical Raw Materials (CRM) Act includes standards to increase domestic capacity for the extraction, processing, refining, and recycling of strategic raw materials by 2030.
While the EU is taking responsibility and preparing for the mining and processing of critical raw materials within its own borders to reduce dependence on China and advance toward a circular economy, it is clear that there is no free lunch. However, the question remains whether sustainable or at least socially responsible mining is possible, what it looks like in practice, and how far Serbia is from achieving this.
What does socially responsible mining look like?
The well-being of local communities and ecosystems, with as minimal negative impact on society and the environment as possible, are the priorities of socially responsible mining. This entails adopting sustainable practices throughout the entire life cycle of a mine, from exploration through exploitation to closure and even beyond.
One of the critical aspects of socially and environmentally responsible mining is engaging with local communities, which includes respecting their rights, traditional knowledge, and cultural heritage and involving them in decision-making processes.
Priority is given to workers health and safety through applying strict safety standards, providing appropriate training, and promoting a safe working environment.
Socially and environmentally responsible mining seeks to reduce its environmental impact by minimizing the use of natural resources, reducing waste, implementing effective reclamation and rehabilitation plans after mining, and compensating for local biodiversity loss by creating more in other locations.
Mines are managed in a climate-neutral manner, for instance, by using green energy to power mining trucks and benign chemicals, while tailings are managed responsibly, avoiding dam failures, acid mine drainage, and the like.
Water usage is minimized, and energy-efficient technologies are used to reduce environmental impact, and efforts are made to avoid or minimize impact on essential habitats and biodiversity hotspots.
Transparency, along with reporting every environmental and societal impact and engaging in independent audits to ensure accountability, is one of the most important aspects of responsible mining.
Governments, industry associations, and non-governmental organizations are crucial in promoting and implementing socially and environmentally responsible mining practices through regulations, certifications, and standards.
Socially responsible mining entails safe working conditions for employees, high wages, and respect for the local communities near the mining area. The latter involves maintaining continuous dialogue with the residents and investing in the local communities.
Thats not the kind of mining you can see in Congo, Indonesia, or China, but you can in the Nordic countries,” says Peter Tom Jones, the director of the Institute for Sustainable Metals and Minerals at the University of Leuven, to Demostat.
Jones states that the Nordic countries, where copper, iron, or nickel mines operate properly, are examples of nations where this paradigm of responsible mining is omnipresent. “This is also reflected in international rankings, where Nordic countries are at the top of the league regarding ESG criteria (environment, social, and governance),” Jones tells Demostat.
He says that we shouldnt forget that European legislation for mining and waste treatment is stricter than anywhere else in the world, and the Nordic countries are a testament to that. Jones, who leads a team of 240 researchers dedicated to the development and implementation of circular and low-carbon solutions for the extraction, processing, and recycling of metals crucial for the transition to a green and circular economy, considers it hypocritical that a segment of wealthy European citizens desires their expensive smartphones and electric cars but not the mines in their “backyard.”
“How moral is it to prefer mining happening in poorer countries in the global south, where local environmental and social conditions and consequences are dire? Were then just exporting our social and environmental responsibility to the other side of the world. Instead, I believe in the Better in my backyard syndrome, which means that we take responsibility, mine and refine metals within European borders, and do so in a responsible, good way. This should be the path for Europe,” Jones states.
What do they say in the European Union?
Serbia, which is not a member but a candidate country for membership, is rich in lithium, found in the Jadar River valley. The British-Australian company Rio Tinto had planned its exploitation, but the project was halted due to protests from locals and parts of the public.
The European Commission told Demostat that Serbia is endowed with significant raw materials, including critical ones like lithium, which, due to its use in batteries, is a crucial element for e- mobility and energy storage technologies.
However, its supply remains highly concentrated, and its economic importance makes it a critical raw material. Lithium, in the proposed European Act on Critical Raw Materials, has been designated as a strategic raw material because of its expected demand increase and relevance to strategic applications in green technologies.
The EC reminds us that Serbias legislative package for mining and energy was adopted in April 2021. They highlight that the EC and the Serbian Government signed letters of intent on September 22nd of this year to start a strategic partnership in critical raw materials and batteries.
In response to Demostats remark that part of the Serbian public claims Rio Tinto will open its mines in Serbia, exploit our land, and leave it devastated, and the question of whether there are mechanisms to prevent such a possible scenario, the European Commission states that EU legislation ensures the highest level of environmental and social protection, including for mining projects.
“As a candidate country for EU membership, Serbia is in the process of aligning its legislation with European standards, including in the area of environmental policy,” state the European Commission (EC) representatives.
Furthermore, the EC follows a strategy for the safe and sustainable procurement of critical raw materials to support the dual transition, which implies promoting added value within the country. In fact, the EC advocates for developing capacities for processing and refining in the exact location of the resources and within the EU.
“This would be paramount for establishing local, sustainable, and vertically integrated ecosystems of clean technology and zero carbon dioxide emissions,” the EC points out. In March, the EC introduced a proposal for an Act on Critical Raw Materials, which aims to reduce the current dependency on imports of critical raw materials, especially from China, and achieve the planned net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
“Critical raw materials” are primarily considered to be rare metals necessary for various modern green technologies, among which lithium is included, and it is projected to be mined and processed in Europe.
From the EC to Demostat, its pointed out that the EU has a very robust legislative framework ensuring that the extraction and processing of raw materials are in line with ecologically sound and socially healthy conditions and directives on environmental protection.
As they point out, the EC and relevant parties have developed guidelines for mining in protected areas under the “Natura 2000” network to extract minerals while preserving nature. Established rules include public participation and ensure the right to information, especially regarding environmental issues.
As the EC to Demostat states, national governments are responsible for the central administrative decisions and permits related to mining activities, ensuring compliance with all EU legal acquis, including the Environmental Impact Assessment, the Habitats and Birds Directives, etc…
From the EC, it is conveyed that the mining industry in the EU contributes to the circular economy. For example, they mention the Ronnskar smelter in northern Sweden, one of the worlds largest companies for recycling metal from electronic materials. This enables Boliden to offer a copper cathode derived from 100% recycled material essential for a sustainable society.
Can critical raw materials be exploited in an environmentally friendly way?
Jones believes its possible with the concept of responsible mining. Regarding lithium, researchers from the French Geological Survey identified 27 hard rock deposits in Europe, including the Jadar site in Serbia. However, none of these sites have been converted into active mines, though many projects are underway. “From what I understood, the Australian company Rio Tinto is also willing to exploit this deposit and wants to start extracting and processing lithium in Serbia. My advice would be to agree, but make sure the terms reflect a responsible mining approach,” Jones stated.
For other critical metals, there are many potential options throughout Europe. Among other places, high-quality deposits are found in Sweden, Finland, and Norway. “If we opened just a few of them, we could already meet a significant portion of European needs,” he says, adding that there are many options for new copper and nickel/cobalt mines in Europe. For example, the Balkan region is quite rich in nickel-laterite deposits that could be exploited.
“The question is whetherthe Critical Raw Materials Act, in which strategic projects are supposed to get a faster permitting procedure, namely two years, will actually lead to the opening of new mines in the next ten years. If we want to reduce our dangerous dependency on China, we must start exploiting some of our domestic resources. Its implicit,” he emphasizes.
Speaking of recycling, Jones points out that you cant recycle what isnt yet available for recycling. This especially applies to lithium, nickel, and cobalt, which are contained in lithium-ion batteries or rare metals present in permanent magnet motors. He mentions that only from 2035 or 2040 will there be sufficient amounts of metals for recycling. In the meantime, for new metals like lithium, cobalt, or others, sufficient quantities must be ensured through mining.
He reminds us that the International Energy Agency has calculated that by 2040, recycled quantities of copper, lithium, nickel, and cobalt from used batteries could reduce these minerals combined primary supply needs by only 10 percent. After 2040, the contribution of recycling will rapidly increase. Its clear that when these metals are in the process, they must be retained and recycled in Europe as Europe gradually transitions fully towards a circular economy. “But it will still take more than 20 to 25 years before we reach that stage where primary mining is no longer necessary,” Jones concluded.
With more than 60,000 tons of known lithium reserves, Portugal is considered one of the pivotal countries in the European Unions efforts to secure a more significant part of the battery value chain and reduce reliance on imports. Last month, the Portuguese Environmental Protection Agency approved the local company Lusorecursos to mine lithium for batteries, and the mine is expected to start production by the end of 2027. Previously, the London company Savannah Resources was given the green light for the Barozo surface mine.
However, the Portuguese did not favor the lithium rush, believing it would destroy their environment.
Thus, they have joined many European citizens who do not want excavations and explorations in their backyard.
The Chairwoman of the Board of the National Laboratory for Energy and Geology in Portugal, Teresa Ponk de Leao, told Demostat that it is essential to strike a balance between addressing the legitimate concerns of communities and the need for development. She states that it is crucial to have transparent communication with all parties and involve them in the decision-making processes to promote a more sustainable and inclusive development.
When asked about the response to citizens concerns about the exploitation of metals crucial for climate neutrality and how strict, according to Portugals experience, the procedures for obtaining mining permits in Europe are, Teresa Ponk de Leao answers that institutions and scientific communities in Europe, as well as at the United Nations, devote a lot of effort to implement transparent, reliable, and standardized actions. These ensure the population will be compensated for any damage if it occurs, aiming for the common good.
She emphasizes that all mines in Portugal must respect rules that ensure the community. Regarding the question of how to communicate with communities opposing the opening of mines, she replies:
“Explain, explain, explain in an objective and trustworthy manner. Natural resources belong to all individuals but must be gathered to compensate those who suffer temporary impacts.”