The green transition relies on the use of numerous rare minerals. Lithium is crucial for electrification, in particular for electric cars, and demand is growing. Currently dependant on imports, the EU would like to source the lithium needed for decarbonisation closer to home. But with huge protests in Serbia, it is clear that local communities are asking, “Whose green transition”?
In Serbia, lithium has become a divisive topic. Citizens, environmental activists, and green political parties stand on one side. On the other stands a major company supported by Serbia’s ruling parties, as well as certain political forces from within the EU. Polarisation between supporters and opponents of lithium extraction has made genuine debate impossible. The question of whether there is even a need for lithium mining – and under what conditions it might be acceptable – rarely figures.
The importance of lithium
The lightest metal in the periodic table, lithium is used in most batteries due to its ability to “do the most work with the least mass”. While batteries can also be made of metals such as sodium, magnesium, or aluminium that are found abundantly in nature – lithium, by contrast, makes up less than 0.002 per cent of the Earth’s crust – these are less practical because of their larger volume.
Barring a major technological shift, demand for lithium is likely to increase fivefold by 2030 according to US public-private alliance Li-Bridge. Most of the demand will be generated by the car industry, which is planning an accelerated transition to electric vehicles. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the price of lithium carbonate – the main material for electric batteries – has been falling since early 2023 due to a slowdown in the sale of electric vehicles in China. Predicting how prices will move in the future is not easy.
Global lithium production is dominated by Australia, Chile, and China. The largest European reserves are found in Germany and Czechia, followed by Serbia, which has an estimated 1.2 million tonnes of this lightest of metals. However, lithium is not extracted on a major scale in Europe.
Currently, the EU is therefore almost entirely dependent on imports for lithium, as well as other raw materials that are crucial for the green transition. In spring 2023, the European Commission published a proposal for the Critical Raw Materials Act. With this act, the EU plans to reduce its current dependence on the import of critical raw materials, especially from China, which is currently the world’s largest exporter. It sets the goal that, by 2030, European mines and recycling centres should produce 10 per cent and 15 per cent respectively of the raw materials needed by the EU’s green industries. The draft act introduces the possibility of declaring certain raw materials projects as “strategic”, which would bring a series of administrative “benefits” in the form of shorter waiting times. It would also imply higher ecological costs, as the time allocated for assessing the environmental impact of such projects would be significantly reduced.
It remains unclear how this new proposal will affect Serbia. As part of its accession negotiations with the EU, Serbia is obliged to harmonise its laws with EU legislation. Increased pressure to open up access to the country’s lithium reserves is to be expected.
Serbia is a sacrifice zone
At the beginning of 2004, a new mineral with the chemical formula sodium-lithium-borosilicate-hydroxide was discovered in western Serbia. It was named Jadarite after the surrounding area and nearby river Jadar. This new mineral initially attracted media attention for its chemical similarity to the fictitious kryptonite after the supposed formula of the latter was revealed in the 2006 movie Superman Returns. Kryptonite is Superman’s weak point; while it can give otherwise ordinary people superhuman abilities in the short term, it is deadly over the long term.
Similar to the story of Superman, the fight against the planned exploitation of lithium in western Serbia is full of dubious characters and sudden turns but also struggle and solidarity. The story is far from over. Currently, we are in the calm before the storm that no doubt lies ahead.
Gornje Nedeljice is a small village in the western Serbian municipality of Loznica. The degree of economic development in the region is between 60 and 80 per cent of the national average, and its economy is dominated by agriculture – mainly cereals but also fruit and livestock farming. This village and its surrounding area is where multinational mining behemoth Rio Tinto was planning to start the underground mining of lithium.
Despite the initial hype, jadarite was soon forgotten by most. Not, however, by Rio Tinto, which spent years conducting research. For a time, its activities went relatively unnoticed by locals and ecological organisations. But, in 2020, they suddenly became aware of the company’s intention to open a mine in their area – a mine that would produce the raw material for major industrial chemicals boric acid, lithium carbonate, and sodium sulphate. But also a mine that, according to local activists and academics, would cause ecological devastation and turn the predominantly agricultural area into a “sacrifice zone”. To obtain lithium and boron from jadarite ore, large quantities of sulphuric acid are needed. As the planned location of the mine and the tailings dump was next to abundant river courses that often flood, there were justified fears of water and soil contamination.
The mine threatened more than 15,000 local households, in particular those living in properties located within the area of the proposed site, which could be seized by the state – on behalf of corporate actors in this instance – if their owners are not prepared to sell their land.
That the area around Jadar was planned as a sacrifice zone for the sake of Europe’s green transition was also flagged up by British anti-capitalist research group Corporate Watch, which has criticised the EU as well as Rio Tinto for appearing ready to sacrifice the Serbian environment for the benefit of the European car industry.
The fight for a clean environment
After attempts to contest the proposed mine through formal channels failed to yield any results, local activists turned to protest. Gornje Nedeljice was the site of the first protests, which in 2021 spread to regional centre Loznica, where the planning decision permitting the construction of the mine was taken. These protests were ignored by the local and national government, which in Serbia is under the absolute control of the Serbian Progressive Party, which emerged from the far-right Serbian Radical Party and currently occupies a strong centre-right position.
The protests against the exploitation of lithium – and Rio Tinto – soon moved to Serbia’s capital and largest city, Belgrade. At a large environmental protest held there in September 2022, the organisers demanded that the controversial proposed laws on the expropriation of land and on a planned referendum – meant to facilitate the implementation of the lithium mining project – be withdrawn. The third demand was that Rio Tinto leave Serbia immediately.
As the adoption of the disputed laws approached, the protests became more radical, culminating in blockades of all Serbia’s major roads. In Belgrade, over 10,000 people blocked Gazela Bridge, which is part of the international highway. According to some estimates, during the largest blockades, around 100,000 people gathered across the country. These were the largest environmental protests in Serbian history.
The protests succeeded. In early 2022, President Aleksandar Vučić announced the withdrawal of the two proposed laws. A few weeks later, the Jadar lithium project was removed from the spatial plan of the municipality of Loznica. This was achieved due to unprecedented pressure from citizens, but also in order to calm the country before the elections on 3 April 2022.
Green wave in Serbia
The fact that environmental issues occupied an important place in the campaign for the 2022 elections was at least partly thanks to the protests against the Jadar mine. For the first time, environmental topics were on the agenda of political actors in Serbia, and there was active debate on the possible exploitation of lithium in the country, with all opposition parties speaking out against the project.
The fight against lithium mining, together with the campaigns for clean air and against harmful mini-hydroelectric projects – backed up by a clear municipalist programme and support from the Ne davimo Beograd (Don’t drown Belgrade) movement in the capital city – contributed to the success of green candidates in the elections. In both the national parliamentary elections and the Belgrade city elections, green-left coalition Moramo achieved good results – 4.7 and 10.8 per cent respectively – and managed to get a genuinely ecologist option into the institutions for the first time.
All members of the Moramo coalition were actively involved in the protests, and they continued to institutionally oppose lithium exploitation in Serbia. In the meantime, a petition organised by the Kreni-Promeni (Move-Change) movement calling for a ban on lithium and boron mining was signed by more than 30,000 citizens and submitted. Not only did the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia fail to make a public statement on the petition, there were also claims that the signatures were lost. Moramo MPs continued to insist that those responsible for this alleged loss be identified and that this issue be raised in parliament.
Meanwhile, President Vučić – who has immense de facto decision-making power in spite of the purely representative nature of his role – often makes reference to lithium mining in his speeches. He emphasises how a great opportunity was missed and how foreign intelligence services played a key role in preventing the project, thereby denying the role of the citizens who braved freezing temperatures to protest and block roads – a narrative that leaves the door open for further attempts at lithium exploitation.
Another extraction is possible?
Despite the so-far successful opposition to the mine, there is no getting around the importance of lithium to the green transition.
Of course, no one would want a mine opened right next to their house or in their local area. Still, if we are to be guided by a development paradigm that envisions a green transition to a low-carbon society, lithium must be mined somewhere. If the ore isn’t mined in Serbia, it will be mined in Bolivia, Argentina, or Chile, where local communities will also be affected. How, then, to deal with such challenges?
As a strategic resource for the future, the Serbian state should under no circumstances give up the country’s lithium to a private company that would have a monopoly over its extraction and production. For guidance, Serbia could look to Bolivia and Chile, who are moving to nationalise lithium in order to secure control over and profit from the mineral’s extraction.
There is no getting around the importance of lithium to the green transition.
The Serbian state could, for example, establish a public company under direct citizen control to manage its lithium reserves. In this way, instead of receiving a meagre resource rent, the public purse would keep the profits from ore production. If mining is to take place, the state has a responsibility to its citizens to employ the best available technologies and commit to the repair of pollution damage, which is unfortunately inevitable no matter the technology used.
Besides mines, the state should also ensure that lithium processing plants (in which finished products in the form of lithium batteries are produced) are opened. And why not take things further and envision electric car factories based in Serbia? That way, lithium could bring long-term development – not only to the Loznica area but also further afield.
What is to be done?
The citizens of Serbia are not convinced that the plan to exploit lithium in the country has been permanently blocked. The government is sending mixed messages, and trust in political parties and institutions is generally low. That various European officials are directly or indirectly exerting pressure in favour of lithium exploitation hardly helps.
They are distrustful because they fear that lithium exploitation could cause ecological degradation and that all the profits would go elsewhere. Serbia has one of the lowest mineral rents in Europe. While the development of a lithium processing complex would be desirable, it seems that instead, ore extracted in Serbia would be exported unprocessed. Serbia would not make batteries for new electric cars. Nor would those cars be assembled in Serbia. The surplus value would be generated elsewhere for someone else’s benefit.
They also know that they will not drive those electric cars. In a society where the average net monthly salary rose above 500 euros for the first time only last year, affording a 50,000 euro electric car remains a dream. As per the relationship between the European periphery and its capitalist core, Serbia can expect old cars with internal combustion engines that make the country’s dangerous levels of air pollution even worse.
In the global push for electrification, whether there is even enough lithium to replace all fossil fuel-powered vehicles with electric cars remains questionable. Should we not instead be thinking about how to replace cars – the most inefficient form of individual transportation – with collective forms of transport that are significantly more sustainable?
Keeping lithium reserves in the ground would require a paradigm shift at all levels – from local to national and European to global – towards societies that will spend less, but more fairly and more efficiently. After all, the greenest products are those that are never produced.