A guest blog from the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition
Matthew Gianni & Sian Owen | The Economist | February 11, 2019
The deep seabed was once believed to be a lifeless realm of mud and rock. This barren image changed dramatically, however, as technology to explore the hidden depths improved. In 2016, the United Nations First World Ocean Assessment described the deep sea as a ‘vast realm which constitutes the largest source of species and ecosystem diversity on Earth, supporting ecosystem processes necessary for our planet’s natural systems to function.’
Scientists are just beginning to discover the full richness of deep-sea life. Yet already a number of companies and countries are exploring the deep ocean for minerals and developing the technology to mine some of the last untouched areas of our planet. Much of the commercial interest is focused on deposits of cobalt, copper, nickel and manganese found in nodules that lie on the deep seabed in an area known as the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ).
Imagine what mining would look like. To collect commercially viable quantities of the metals in the CCZ, a single 30-year mining operation in the area would churn up an estimated 9,000-10,000 km2 of seabed – an area the size of Lebanon. Sediment plumes generated by the activity would fill the surrounding waters and be carried away by deep currents, reaching ecosystems far beyond the mining site. The noise and light of the subsea machinery could cause harm to marine organisms adapted to the quiet darkness, while large quantities of wastewater with residual ore and sediment would be discharged back into the sea.
Beyond national borders
The CCZ is located in the eastern Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii, beyond the maritime jurisdiction of any country. This area, like all other international stretches of the seabed, is managed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a global body established by the UN Law of the Sea. The ISA is now developing regulations that would permit mining on ‘behalf of mankind as a whole’. ISA member countries have set a target date of 2020 to finalize the regulations in order to be ‘open for business’. In the meantime, the ISA has already handed out 29 licenses to explore for deep-sea minerals, covering some 1.5 million km2 of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. Sixteen of these licenses are in the CCZ.
Meeting demand, on land
Proponents often claim that mining the international seabed is essential for the manufacture of electric batteries, wind turbines and other technology needed for a renewable energy economy. A 2016 report by the Institute for Sustainable Futures refutes this claim. Having reviewed global supplies and projected demand for metals considered key to renewable energy technology, the report concludes that even under the most ambitious scenario – a 100% renewable energy economy globally by 2050 – projected demand could be met by existing terrestrial mining, improved metals recycling, alternatives to metals in short supply, and smarter technology and product design. The report was cited in the World Bank’s recent assessment of future metals needs for renewable energy technologies.
Cobalt in particular, used in batteries for everything from phones to electric vehicles, is often cited as a reason to open up the deep sea to mining. There is growing concern over erratic supplies, poor working conditions and the use of child labour reported in mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where 60-70% of the global cobalt supply is sourced.
To address these issues, several global entities, including BMW, Umicore, Trafigura, the African Development Bank, and the US Department of Labor, are working on the ground and in the marketplace. Some major battery manufacturing companies like Tesla and Panasonic have committed to phasing out cobalt over the coming decade. Others are actively investing in research and development for substitutes.
The success of these efforts remains to be seen. But direct engagement with the sector in the DRC and working on improved sustainability and standards within the current supply chain are more likely to address problems with terrestrial mining than opening up a new deep-sea industry with its host of new risks and impacts.
Great promise or great extinction?
A 2018 submission to the ISA signed by 50 non-governmental organisations questions whether deep-sea mining can ever be compatible with countries’ obligations to protect and sustainably manage the oceans. Recent articles published in international scientific journals argue that biodiversity loss from deep-sea mining is likely to be inevitable and irrevocable, and that most of this loss would be permanent on human timescales.
This sentiment is beginning to gain political traction. The European Parliament adopted a resolution on international oceans governance in January 2018, calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until the risks to the environment are fully understood. This call was repeated by the UN Envoy on Oceans at the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.
Concerted international efforts to halt and reverse biodiversity loss are critical to the survival of life as we know it. The international community of nations should not agree to permit deep-sea mining on the global ocean commons until the risks are fully understood and we are certain that it will not open up a whole new frontier of ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss and extinction.
For more from Matthew and Sian, follow the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition on twitter at @DeepSeaConserve.