We need lithium for clean energy, but Rio Tinto’s planned Serbian mine reminds us it shouldn’t come at any cost


Ana Estefanía Carballo, The University of Melbourne; Gillian Gregory, The University of Melbourne, and Tim Werner, The University of MelbourneThousands of demonstrators rallied across the Serbian capital Belgrade this month, protesting the US$2.4 billion (A$3.3 billion) Jadar lithium mine proposed by global mining giant Rio Tinto. The project, Rio Tinto’s flagship renewable energy initiative, is set to become the largest lithium project in the European Union.

Lithium is a crucial component of energy storage, both for renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles. Forecast demand has prompted efforts by companies and governments worldwide to tap into this market – a scramble dubbed the “white gold rush”.

As lithium projects have multiplied across Australia, Europe, Latin America and the US in recent years, so too have concerns over their environmental and social impacts. Communities near proposed and existing lithium mines are some of the loudest opponents. In a town near the proposed mine in Serbia, a banner reads: “No mine, yes life”.

Lithium extraction serves legitimate global environmental needs. But the industry must not ignore local social and environmental risks, and community voices must be included in decision making. The harsh lessons of mining to date need not be learned again in new places.

Weighing the risks

According to the latest estimates, the world’s resources of lithium sit at 86 million tonnes, a number that continues to grow as new deposits are found every year. Australia is the main producer of lithium, where it’s mined from hard rock called “spodumene”. The largest deposits are found in South America, where lithium is extracted from brines underneath salt flats.

Lithium mining operates beneath the salt flats in the Atacama, Chile.
Shutterstock

In many cases, lithium mines are relatively new operations, yet complex and adverse social and environmental impacts have already been observed. More research and better targeted policy are needed to help understand and manage the socio-environmental impacts.

In Chile, lithium has been mined since the 1980s. It has been shown to interfere with cultural practices of local Indigenous communities, alter traditional economic livelihoods and exacerbate the fragility of surrounding ecosystems.




Read more:
Afghanistan has vast mineral wealth but faces steep challenges to tap it


The Jadar lithium project is operated by Rio Sava, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto. It’s expected to become one of Serbia’s largest mines, occupying around 387 hectares, and contribute to at least 1% of Serbia’s GDP.

An environmental impact study commissioned by Rio Tinto, and obtained by Reuters, found the project would cause “irredeemable damage” to the environment, concluding the project should not go ahead. Environmental impacts are expected for any mine proposal. Yet some are manageable, so such a grave assessment in this case is not encouraging.

The extent to which a project shows best practice in mine management can depend on pressure from communities, investors and governments. Promises to adhere to all regulations are a common response from the industry.

But as we’re seeing in Chile, significant environmental damage and socio-environmental impacts can still occur within established regulations. Here, communities living on the salt flats are concerned about the effect of removing groundwater for lithium extraction on their livelihoods and surrounding ecosystems.

Communities near the Jadar Mine project hold similar concerns. They have gathered in formal organisation to reject the project and stage demonstrations. A petition against the project has gained over 130,000 signatures, and a report by the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences has protested the project’s approval.

The communities fear the potential risks of air and waterborne pollution from the lithium mine, destruction of biodiversity, and the loss of land to mine infrastructure. These risks could affect the livelihoods of local landholders, farmers and residents.

Of particular concern is that the proposed locations for mine waste (tailings) are in a valley prone to flash flooding and may lead to toxic waste spills. This previously occurred in the same region when the abandoned Stolice antimony mine flooded in 2014. Rio Tinto has said it will try to mitigate this risk by converting the liquid waste into so-called “dry cakes”.

In response to this article, a Rio Tinto spokesperson said it has been working through the project requirements for 20 years, with a team of over 100 domestic experts studying the possible cumulative impacts in accordance with Serbian law, adding:

The study will consider all potential environmental effects of proposed actions and define measures to eliminate or reduce them […] including water, noise, air quality, biodiversity and cultural heritage.

Can we decarbonise without sacrifice?

The Jadar Mine project is touted for its potential to bring significant profits to both Rio Tinto and the Serbian state, while helping usher in the era of decarbonisation.

Rio Tinto plans to begin construction by 2022, “subject to receiving all relevant approvals, permits and licences and ongoing engagement”, with first saleable production expected in 2026.

But relatively fast timelines like this can sometimes be a sign of regulatory governance instability, including weak regulatory frameworks or regulatory capture (when agencies are increasingly dominated by the interests they regulate). We have seen this in Guyana, Peru and Brazil.




Read more:
Rio Tinto just blasted away an ancient Aboriginal site. Here’s why that was allowed


In Australia, Rio Tinto’s recent destruction of the culturally invaluable Juukan Gorge — which, notably, occurred legally — also demonstrates regulatory governance risks.

Jadar River Valley in western Serbia, home to a huge deposit of lithium.
Shutterstock

Rio Tinto’s spokesperson said its Environmental Impact Assessment process includes a public consultation period including, for example, meetings with non-government organisations, adding:

We have established information centres in Loznica and Brezjak and, since 2019, have hosted over 20 public open day events in these centres focusing on aspects of the project including environment studies, cultural heritage and land acquisition.

Although the Serbian government indicated that it’s prepared to hold a referendum to find out the will of citizens about the Jadar mine project, the community protests suggest the project hasn’t obtained any social license to operate.

A “social license to operate” is, despite its corporatised name, increasingly key to sustainable or responsible mining projects. It centres on ongoing acceptance by stakeholders, the public, and local communities of a company’s standard business practices. Building such trust takes time, and a social license is only a minimum requirement.




Read more:
Renewable energy can save the natural world – but if we’re not careful, it will also hurt it


In Argentina, for example, Indigenous communities living near the lithium mines have developed their own protocol for giving their informed consent.

Similarly, processes of community-based impact assessment or self-government structures led by First Nations in Canada offer insight into potential collaborative relationships.

These processes cannot be rushed to ensure voices are heard, rights are respected, and environmental protection is possible.

Lithium is essential for the transition away from fossil fuels, but it shouldn’t come at any cost.
Shutterstock

A new frontier

Like many other communities negotiating proposed mine projects, local communities and residents in Serbia should not become another zone of sacrifice, shouldering the socio-environmental costs of supporting a renewable energy transition.

Lithium deposits are often seen as “new frontiers” in the places they’re discovered. Yet we must learn from historical lessons of frontier expansion, and remember that places imagined as “undiscovered” aren’t actually empty.

The people who live there must not bear the brunt of a so-called “green” future.




Read more:
‘Although we didn’t produce these problems, we suffer them’: 3 ways you can help in NAIDOC’s call to Heal Country


The Conversation


Ana Estefanía Carballo, Research Fellow in Mining and Society, School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, The University of Melbourne; Gillian Gregory, Research Fellow in Mining Governance, School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, The University of Melbourne, and Tim Werner, ARC DECRA Fellow, School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Scientists still don’t know how far melting in Antarctica will go – or the sea level rise it will unleash


Chen Zhao, University of Tasmania and Rupert Gladstone, University of LaplandThe Antarctic ice sheet is the largest mass of ice in the world, holding around 60% of the world’s fresh water. If it all melted, global average sea levels would rise by 58 metres. But scientists are grappling with exactly how global warming will affect this great ice sheet.

This knowledge gap was reflected in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It contains projections from models in which important processes affecting the ice sheets, known as feedbacks and tipping points, are absent because scientific understanding is lacking.

Projected sea level rise will have widespread effects in Australia and around the world. But current projections of ice sheet melt are so wide that developing ways for societies to adapt will be incredibly expensive and difficult.

If the world is to effectively adapt to sea level rise with minimal cost, we must quickly address the uncertainty surrounding Antarctica’s melting ice sheet. This requires significant investment in scientific capacity.

Tourists photograph beachside homes damaged by storm
Australia is vulnerable to sea level rise and associated storm surge, such as this scene at a Sydney beach in 2016.
David Moir/AAP

The great unknown

Ice loss from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets was the largest contributor to sea level rise in recent decades. Even if all greenhouse gas emissions ceased today, the heat already in the ocean and atmosphere would cause substantial ice loss and a corresponding rise in sea levels. But exactly how much, and how fast, remains unclear.

Scientific understanding of ice sheet processes, and of the variability of the forces that affect ice sheets, is incredibly limited. This is largely because much of the ice sheets are in very remote and harsh environments, and so difficult to access.

This lack of information is one of the main sources of uncertainty in the models used to estimate ice mass loss.

At the moment, quantifying how much the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets will contribute to sea level rise primarily involves an international scientific collaboration known as the “Ice Sheet Model Intercomparison Project for CMIP6”, or ISMIP6, of which we are part.

The project includes experts in ice sheet and climate modelling and observations. It produces computer simulations of what might happen if the polar regions melt under different climate scenarios, to improve projections of sea level rise.

The project also investigates ice sheet–climate feedbacks. In other words, it looks at how processes in the oceans and atmosphere will affect the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, including whether the changes might cause them to collapse – leading to large and sudden increases in sea level.




Read more:
Anatomy of a heatwave: how Antarctica recorded a 20.75°C day last month


a melting glacier
Ice loss from sheets in Antarctic and Greenland were the biggest contributor to sea-level rise in recent decades.
John McConnico/AP

Melting from below

Research has identified so-called “basal melt” as the most significant driver of Antarctic ice loss. Basal melt refers to the melting of ice shelves from underneath, and in the case of Antarctica, interactions with the ocean are thought to be the main cause. But gathering scientific observations beneath ice shelves is a major logistical challenge, leading to a dearth of data about this phenomenon.

This and other constraints mean the rate of progress in ice sheet modelling has been insufficient to date, and so active ice sheet models are not included in climate models.

Scientists must instead make projections using the ice sheet models in isolation. This hinders scientific attempts to accurately simulate the feedback between ice and climate.

For example, it creates much uncertainty in how the interaction between the ocean and the ice shelf will affect ice mass loss, and how the very cold, fresh meltwater will make its way back to global oceans and cause sea level rise, and potentially disrupt currents.

Despite the uncertainties ISMIP6 is dealing with, it has published a series of recent research including a key paper published in Nature in May. This found if the world met the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5℃ this century, land ice melt would cause global sea level rise of about 13cm by 2100, in the most optimistic scenario. This is compared to a rise of 25cm under the world’s current emissions-reduction pledges.

The study also outlines a pessimistic, but still plausible, basal melt scenario for Antarctica in which sea levels could be five times higher than in the main scenarios.

The breadth of such findings underpinned sea level projections in the latest IPCC report. The Antarctic ice sheet once again represented the greatest source of uncertainty in these projections.

The below graph shows the IPCC’s latest sea level projections. The shaded area reflects the large uncertainties in models using the same basic data sets and approaches. The dotted line reflects deep uncertainty about tipping points and thresholds in ice sheet stability.

IPCC reports are intended to guide global policy-makers in coming years and decades. But the uncertainties about ice melt from Antarctica limit the usefulness of projections by the IPCC and others.




Read more:
This is the most sobering report card yet on climate change and Earth’s future. Here’s what you need to know


The IPCC’s projections for global average sea level change in metres, relative to 1900.
IPCC

Dealing with uncertainty

Future sea level rise poses big challenges such as human displacement, infrastructure loss, interference with agriculture, a potential influx of climate refugees, and coastal habitat degradation.

It’s crucial that ice sheet models are improved, tested robustly against real-world observations, then integrated into the next generation of international climate models – including those being developed in Australia.

International collaborations such as NECKLACE and RISE are seeking to coordinate international effort between models and observations. Significant investment across these projects is needed.

Sea levels will continue rising in the coming decades and centuries. Ice sheet projections must be narrowed down to ensure current and future generations can adapt safely and efficiently.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Dr Ben Galton-Fenzi, Dr Rupert Gladstone, Dr Thomas Zwinger and David Reilly to the research from which this article draws.The Conversation

Chen Zhao, Research associate, University of Tasmania and Rupert Gladstone, Adjunct professor, University of Lapland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.