“Hundreds of holes are in the ground here. Can you imagine?” Catarina Alves Scarrott angrily says. The Portuguese, from the hamlet of Covas do Barroso, can hardly bear to see it. Although she lives in London, she fears for the future of her homeland now that a large mining company wants to extract the sought-after lithium – the raw material for batteries for electric cars – from the ground. “They are going to destroy our country. Soon we will have an open mining pit next to our village.”
Mining companies throughout Europe are conducting research into lithium. Because if it is up to Brussels, Europe will become less dependent on ‘lithium giants’ such as China and Chile in the future and the EU itself will provide this important raw material. In countries such as Finland, Austria, Serbia, Spain, the Czech Republic, and therefore Portugal, lithium is underground.
It sounds like a good plan: because if the white gold can be brought closer to home, it is a lot more sustainable and its extraction will create jobs. And the demand for lithium, which is also found in the batteries of mobile telephones and laptops, for example, will also increase considerably in the coming years.
Because Europe wants electric cars to be driven much more: From 2035, no new petrol and diesel cars may be sold in Europe at all, according to Brussels. But all this also means that the amount of lithium required in the EU is expected to be 18 times higher by 2030, and 60 times higher by 2050.
But just like in Covas do Barroso, more and more residents of lithium-rich areas are not at all waiting for a mining company in their backyard. Protest movements have arisen throughout Portugal that have nothing to do with lithium mining. Last weekend, thousands of environmental activists took to the streets in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, to demonstrate against lithium mining.
Portugal is now the largest lithium producer in the EU. The southern European country mainly uses it for ceramics. But the lithium for the large batteries of electric cars has to be processed in special refineries. But there are none yet, so the lithium extracted here still has to be refined in other countries.
In Covas do Barrosso, residents are anxiously awaiting the decision on an environmental impact assessment expected before the end of the year. Earlier this year, a lithium project around the Portuguese town of Montalegre was shut down because, according to the government, the company lacked insight into the environmental effects of future lithium mining.