Tag Archives: United Nations

Mining the Deep Sea: Stories for suckers, and corporate capture of the UN

Catherine Coumans | Arena Magazine | 30 October 2019

When I mention that the global mining industry is eyeing the deep seabed as the next frontier in mining I am commonly met with gasps of disbelief and dismay. That gut reaction is often followed up with sensible exclamations about the fact that the world’s oceans are already overstressed by contaminants from human activity, such as plastics, and by overfishing, and, from those in the know, by acidification. Unsurprisingly, these apprehensions do not factor into the rapacious ambitions of industry pitchers for deep-sea mining, nor do they—another gasp of dismay—appear to temper the outright enthusiasm for this new form of mining shown by some highly placed officials in relevant UN bodies.

To overcome the aversion of a public already overwrought by reports of species loss, whales on the brink of extinction and the various horsemen of the climate apocalypse—drought, fires, floods, heat, sea-level rise, food insecurity and forced migrations—deep-sea mining’s frontier investors are surpassing themselves in the propaganda department. The front runner in this regard is a private Canadian company out of Vancouver called DeepGreen Metals Inc.

One of DeepGreen’s early promotional videos, DeepGreen—Metals for our Future, drives home lofty public messages that need to be critically interrogated: deep-sea mining is less environmentally and socially destructive than terrestrial mining; it is necessary in order to save the planet from climate change; and deep-sea mining, and indeed DeepGreen itself, come highly recommended, as both are enthusiastically promoted by the secretary-general of the UN’s International Seabed Authority (ISA). The private pitch of deep-sea-mining promoters is likely more focused on the bottom line: there is untapped wealth in them thar ocean depths for the savvy frontier investor ready to undertake an exciting new experimental mining adventure. DeepGreen’s CEO, Gerard Barron, concluded a sales pitch on the commercial and societal benefits of deep-sea mining in February 2019: ‘…whether you invest in a company like DeepGreen or not, everyone is a sucker for the story’.

DeepGreen’s focus is on polymetallic nodules found on the seabed in international waters of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) of the Pacific Ocean, an area covering some 4000 kilometres and roughly the size of the continental United States. These lumpy baseball-size nodes lie at depths of some 4000 to 6000 metres and contain primarily nickel, cobalt, copper, manganese and iron oxides. The two other targets for deep seabed mining are hydrothermal vents, typically found at depths of 1000 to 4000 metres, and cobalt-rich crusts, typically found on seamounts at depths of 800 to 2500 metres. Hydrothermal vents are believed to have hosted the earliest forms of life on earth and are famous for their abundant array of endemic species that feed on bacteria and other single-celled organisms that, remarkably, do not derive energy from photosynthesis but from the chemicals spewed out by the vents. The massive sulphide deposits built up around these vents contain copper, gold, silver, zinc and lead. Crusts that form on seamounts contain primarily cobalt and also manganese, iron, copper, nickel and platinum.

These geographic features of the deep sea are thrilling would-be miners, as the metals they contain are commonly more highly concentrated than on land, and advancing technology makes them potentially accessible for the first time. The feverish rush to lay claim to large swathes of the seafloor has all the hallmarks of the gold rush that once drew hordes of prospectors to the Wild West, including colourful claims of fabulous treasure lying ready for the reaping on the seafloor. Former UK prime minister David Cameron reportedly pledged to bring wealth from the seabed to the United Kingdom, claiming possible values of £40 billion over thirty years. Not to be outdone, The New Economy claimed that the industry ‘could be worth as much as $1trn to the US economy each year—the value of all the gold deposits alone on the seafloor is estimated to be around $150trn. It’s not hard to see why investors are getting excited’. Indeed, speculators are already making profits without a deep-sea spade in the ground.

To date, twenty-nine exploration licences have been granted in extraterritorial waters, called the Common Heritage of Mankind in UN speak. Granted by the ISA, which has jurisdiction over the seabed in this area, the licences cover some 1.5 million square kilometres in the southwestern Pacific alone (claims also exist in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans). The licences are held jointly by industrialised countries such as China, Korea, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Russia, as well as small Pacific island countries such as Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga and the Cook Islands, and subsidiaries of corporations, such as Lockheed Martin (UK Seabed Resources), and Canada’s DeepGreen (Nauru Ocean Resources Inc.) and Nautilus Minerals Inc. (Tonga Offshore Mining Limited).

No exploitation, or mining, licence has yet been issued for any of these claims in extraterritorial waters: the ISA is still ironing out some details, such as novel governance regimes and brand-new environmental regulations. The first exploitation licence was issued for a project in territorial waters: the government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) granted Nautilus a mining licence in January 2011, but the company’s Solwara 1 project has already tanked. Faced with concerted, vocal and growing community opposition, and apparently insufficient ‘suckers’ for the Nautilus story, the company is now facing bankruptcy. The state of PNG is on the hook for about US$125 million, which it borrowed after Nautilus used arbitration to force the state to live up to its commitment to assume and finance a 15-per-cent stake in the venture. However, some early investors in Nautilus, such as Barron, made a profit: Barron ‘turned a $226,000 investment into $31 million’ in six years before exiting in 2007. It was the founder of Nautilus, David Heydon, who created DeepGreen in 2011 and brought Barron into that company as CEO.

Perhaps if hydrothermal vents and deep-sea nodules could serve solely as inspiration for speculative investing, all would not be so dire. But investors are applying intense pressure on the ISA to finalise the deep-sea-mining regulations, not simply to create another major bump in their investments—which of course it will do—but to open the door to putting massive mining machines onto the seafloor. The ISA has proved to be an all-too-willing and shadowy agency, as pointed out by the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, and Greenpeace:

The ISA has recently rejected the establishment of an environmental committee to better include environmental considerations in its functioning, and key environmental information is not public. Its Legal and Technical Commission meets mostly behind closed doors, and its composition is such that biological and ecological considerations are underrepresented.

So what is at stake? Each of the metal-rich geological features that are of interest to miners is slowly revealing itself to be an incredible ecosystem. In spite of existing at great depths, under immense pressure, in very cold water and in inky darkness, hydrothermal vents, polymetallic nodules and cobalt crusts host diverse, mostly undiscovered and scarcely studied creatures that have amazed the few humans who have seen them in their natural habitats. Hydrothermal vents and cobalt crusts host an abundance of organisms. Those on cobalt crusts have great diversity; many of these creatures are long lived but slow to reproduce and may exist only in certain areas. Those on hydrothermal vents are abundant, though thought to be less diverse, and are often unique to a particular vent. Polymetallic nodules host a wide variety of species, but they are spread more thinly; very few have been identified, but they are also thought to be long lived and slow growing. The habitats around hydrothermal vents are, according to deep-sea biologist Cindy Lee Van Dover, ‘relatively rare on the sea floor, and they’re different from one site to the next because the animals have adapted to the fluid chemistries’. The deep ocean expanses of polymetallic nodules are among the least-disturbed ecosystems on earth. Each of these geological phenomena of the deep sea have taken a very long time to form. Cobalt crusts grow at a rate of 1 to 6 millimetres per million years. Each polymetallic nodule, commonly between 5 and 10 centimetres in diameter, has grown by 2 or 3 centimetres every million years. Furthermore, as trillions of these baseball-size polymetallic nodules lie spread in a thin layer on the surface of abyssal plains, an extensive area would be disturbed if they were to be sucked up by the huge tread-wheel-driven machines envisioned for this task. While the chimney-like structures associated with hydrothermal vents can grow by 40 centimetres over five days, it is unknown whether vent species can recover once a vent chimney has been removed by mining.

While mining methods differ for each of these targeted geological features, deep-sea marine experts agree on the following points: crusts and nodules will take millions of years to reform; entire unusual species that we have never had a chance to study will be lost in the mining of all three types of ecosystem; and the dense sediment plumes that will be created as the seabed is disturbed and the pumping back down of process effluent will negatively impact and smother species over many more kilometres. Recent peer-reviewed papers by marine scientists have titles such as ‘Deep-Sea Mining With No Net Loss of Biodiversity—An Impossible Aim’ and conclusions such as ‘Seabed mining will cause irreparable damage to marine ecosystems’.

So, let us revisit the messages in DeepGreen’s Metals for our Future video. DeepGreen maintains that deep-sea mining is less environmentally and socially destructive than terrestrial mining. Nautilus tried the same spin, which the Deep Sea Mining Campaign adeptly refuted as Nautilus fought to counter vehement opposition to the Solwara 1 project by PNG coastal communities—these communities had already noticed a negative impact on their subsistence livelihoods and cultural practices related to marine species such as sharks as a result of Nautilus’ exploration activities offshore. While it is fascinating to see a new breed of would-be miners throw their terrestrial counterparts under the bus and expose the immense environmental and social harm done by mining on land, this is hardly an argument for opening up another entire ecosystem to exploitation by this rapacious industry, especially an ecosystem as immensely fragile and little understood as the deep sea. In fact, the comparison with terrestrial mining provides many arguments to show why deep-sea mining is a terrible idea, including, just as a start: it is much more challenging, technically and financially, to produce comprehensive baselines in the deep sea than it is on land; it is completely unclear how credible toxicity testing could be done in a deep-sea environment; independent scrutiny by communities, NGOs, independent scientists, media and so on would be much more limited; when things go wrong, such as spills, pipe breaks or unpredicted impacts, it would be much more difficult, nay impossible, to rehabilitate the unintentionally impacted area; modelling of the likely impact zones of toxic sediment plumes created by all forms of deep-sea mining is in its infancy; there is zero experience to draw on regarding impacts and mitigation at each step of the mining process; and the impacts of disturbances in the deep sea on critical food security, livelihood and commercial activity related to species such as tuna are not well understood.

DeepGreen maintains that mining the deep sea is necessary to avert the global climate crisis. Barron casts himself in the company’s video not as a mining CEO or a profit-seeking frontier investor but as a humanitarian eco-warrior, concluding, ‘it is a big responsibility on our shoulders’. The argument is simple: the green economy requires metals for such things as wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries for electric vehicles. While this is true, there is currently no global shortage of critical metals and minerals such as cobalt or lithium. Furthermore, technology is rapidly evolving to reduce or replace cobalt use, recycle lithium, develop urban mining of all kinds of waste products and even, according to experts, ‘biomining to extract rare earths from electronic wastes using microorganisms…use of sodium and magnesium in place of lithium, or alternative batteries based on graphene, hydrogen fuel cells, or even water and table salt. BNEF [Bloomberg New Energy Finance] has said new battery chemistries will probably shift to different source materials after 2030’. There are even reports of batteries using hemp rather than lithium-ion.

Finally, the DeepGreen video prominently features the secretary-general of the ISA, Michael Lodge. Lodge is on what appears to be a DeepGreen vessel, he wears a hard hat with the DeepGreen logo on it, and he both makes the case for deep-sea mining and discusses the ‘partnership’ DeepGreen has with the ISA. It is remarkable, and perhaps telling, that the head of this UN agency, which is tasked with environmental protection of the seabed in the Common Heritage of Mankind, and expects to soon become the regulator and issuer of mining licences for a whole new extractive industry, seems to be oblivious to the appearance of conflict of interest inherent in appearing in DeepGreen’s promotional video. Lodge has yet to respond to a recent report that raises concern about corporate capture of the ISA’s mining-code drafting processes.

It should be obvious that we cannot save the planet by continually expanding our exploitation of it and by trashing new, as yet unexploited ecosystems, such as those in the deep sea. It has taken time for communities and governments to become aware of the existential threat to our oceans, to global biodiversity and to life on earth posed by deep-sea mining. Within the last year the call for a ban or moratorium on the development of regulations by the ISA, and on the practice of deep-sea mining itself, has grown louder. The call is being made by NGOs and civil society organisations such as the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and Greenpeace, individuals such as Sir David Attenborough, and also by governments of Pacific island countries; even the European parliament has called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.

Critical to the effort to protect the deep sea from mining is the need to review the role of the ISA in governing both the protection of the deep seabed as our ‘common heritage’ and its exploitation by for-profit corporations. This agency and its secretary-general have proven themselves to be deeply conflicted and captured by the corporations they are meant to regulate. It is time for a global treaty that will protect the entire international deep seabed from industrial exploitation.

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ISA and United Nations selling experimental seabed mining to Pacific island governments

A bulk-cutter designer for seabed mining

How can efforts to ’conserve and sustainably use the oceans’ be so seamlessly co-opted as a cover for efforts to promote the mining of the seabed?

Unfortunately international agencies like the UN are masters are such deceits and have no regard for the views of Pacific Island people who are vehemently opposed to the exploitation of the seabed…

Pacific small island developing states capacity building on deep seabed mining

International Seabed Mining | 7 February 2019

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) will hold a regional training and capacity building workshop for Pacific Small Island Developing States (P-SIDS) on deep seabed mining in Nuku’alofa, Kingdom of Tonga, from 12 to 14 February 2019. 

The workshop is being held as part of the joint ISA-UNDESA ‘Abyssal initiative for Blue Growth,’ one of the seven Voluntary Commitments made by ISA at the UN Ocean Conference in 2017 to advance implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG 14) to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources  (#OceanAction16538).

High-level representatives from P-SIDS and experts in deep seabed mining and marine science will gather at the workshop to discuss the potential benefits [but not the potential impacts] of increased participation of P-SIDS in deep-sea related activities, and how to ensure that the people in the region will fully benefit from such activities. 

Held over three-days, the workshop will feature sessions on: the status of deep seabed mining activities in the Pacific; the roles and responsibilities of sponsoring States; the legal regime for marine scientific research and environmental management of resources. It is also envisaged that through this workshop, it will be possible to identify better the specific capacity-building needs of P-SIDS in regards to deep seabed mineral related activities.

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Seabed mining concerns taken to United Nations

Kataraina Graham, 2, was part of the Ngati Ruanui seabed mining protest at Castlecliff in September 2017. Photo Bevan Conley.

Simon Waters | Wanganui Chronicle | 27 June 2018

Ngā Rauru is taking its concerns about proposed seabed mining in the South Taranaki Bight to the United Nations.

Te Kaahui o Rauru board member Te Huia Bill Hamilton will present them to the United Nations’ Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

He heads to Geneva for the five-day conference this month and will be representing the National Iwi Chairs’ Forum.

Consent given for the mining breaches International Human Rights Law and marginalises the iwi’s views, he said.

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Mining waste dams threaten people and the environment: UN

UN Body Urges Mining Companies To Put Safety First

New UNEP report “Mine Tailings Storage: Safety Is No Accident” finds mining waste dams threaten people and the environment

Earthworks, MiningWatch, Amnesty, London Mining Network | 23 October 2017

An international coalition of non-governmental organizations welcomes the new Assessment Report Summary released last week in Geneva by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which urges States and the industry to end deadly and damaging mining waste spills by enforcing a “zero-failure objective.”

The joint UNEP-GRID Arendal assessment, “Mine Tailings Storage: Safety Is No Accident,” highlights over 40 mining waste failures over the last decade, including eight ‘significant’ spills since 2014 alone. These failures have killed some 341 people since 2008, damaged hundreds of kilometers of waterways, affected drinking water sources, and jeopardized the livelihoods of many communities.

The report was prompted, the authors write, by mining waste “disasters and rising global concerns about the safety, management and impacts of storing and managing large volumes of mine tailings.” They cite examples such as the Ajka-Kolontár operation in Hungary in 2010 (MAL Hungarian Aluminium), the Mount Polley disaster in Canada in 2014 (Imperial Metals), the Buena Vista Del Cobre spill in Mexico in 2014 (Grupo Mexico), the massive Samarco dam breach in Brazil in 2015 (Vale and BHP Billiton), and the very recent Tonglvshan Mine spill in China in 2017 (China Daye Ltd.).

UNEP and GRID-Arendal point to thousands of mining waste dams worldwide that pose a potential threat to people and the environment located downstream, noting that: “The increasing number and size of tailings dams around the globe magnifies the potential environmental, social and economic cost of catastrophic failure impact and the risks and costs of perpetual management. These risks present a challenge for this generation, and if not addressed now, a debt we will leave to future generations.” — UNEP-GRID Arendal Assessment Report Summary, October 2017

The summary report makes 18 recommendations, including two overarching ones:

  • “The approach to tailings storage facilities must place safety first by making environmental and human safety a priority in management actions and on-the-ground operations. Regulators, industry and communities should adopt a shared zero-failure objective to tailings storage facilities where ‘safety attributes should be evaluated separately from economic considerations, and cost should not be the determining factor’ (Mount Polley expert panel, 2015, p. 125)”
  • “Establish a UN Environment stakeholder forum to facilitate international strengthening of tailings dam regulation.”

Other recommendations include:

  • Transparency: “Establish an accessible public-interest, global database of mine sites, tailings storage facilities and research” and “Fund research into mine tailings storage failures and management of active, inactive and abandoned mine sites.”
  • Accountability: “Expand mining regulations to include independent monitoring and the enforcement of financial and criminal sanctions for non-compliance.”
  • Best Practices: “Avoid dam construction methods known to be high risk,” and “require detailed and ongoing evaluations of potential failure modes, residual risks and perpetual management costs of tailings storage facilities.”
  • Financial Securities: “Enforce mandatory financial securities for life of the mine;” “establish a global financial assurance system for mine-sites,” and “fund a global insurance pool.” Also, “ensure any project assessment or expansion publishes all externalized costs, with an independent life-of-mine sustainability cost-benefit analysis.”

The undersigned organizations support the UNEP recommendations and urge all UN member States and governments to implement them swiftly in collaboration with all concerned, including non-governmental organizations and affected communities.

The UNEP-GRID-Arendal summary report and recommendations are available here.

QUOTES

“Mine waste storage facilities are like ticking time bombs, putting communities and waterways in harm’s way in the event of catastrophic failure. Even after the Mount Polley and Samarco disasters, which should have served as urgent wake-up calls, governments and companies have done far too little to prevent future disasters. Mining trade associations have tried to create the impression for regulators and investors that mining waste containment failure has been addressed, when that is far from accurate. We welcome the independent assessment by UNEP and urge companies and governments to act on these recommendations.” Payal Sampat, Earthworks

“Catastrophic mining waste failures are on the rise worldwide and on all continents. These environmental disasters indiscriminately hit developed and developing countries alike, and clearly appear to be driven by financial factors, not technical ones. This timely and much needed UNEP assessment should act as wake-up call for all States involved in regulating the mining industry. Safety must come before costs.” Ugo Lapointe, MiningWatch Canada

“We believe the recommendations from this UNEP summary report pose a serious challenge to mining companies to improve the rigour of their management of tailings facilities. Last week, we quoted the report in a challenge to the BHP Board in their London AGM to explain how they would ensure their responsibility for rigorous waste management. Their lack of a clear answer demonstrates how far these companies still need to go.”  Richard Harkinson, London Mining Network

“The long-reaching human rights impacts of catastrophic dam failures must not be underestimated. Indigenous peoples and marginalized communities around the globe face enormous uphill struggles for justice and accountability in the wake of mining disasters. Companies must not be permitted to short-cut their human rights responsibilities for the sake of cost, nor governments abdicate their human rights obligations when approving and regulating tailings storage facilities. The UNEP assessment is a welcome acknowledgement of the importance of tailings storage safety in the protection of human rights. “ Tara Scurr, Amnesty International Canada  

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Pacific Spotlights Sea Bed Mining at UN Ocean Conference

PIANGO | SCOOP | 9 June 2017

Activists and representatives from prominent Pacific Island organisations, led by the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (PIANGO), are taking part in a high-profile side event at the United Nations (UN) Oceans Conference at UN Headquarters in New York today. PIANGO is the Pacific Organising Partner for the UN NGO Major Group at the Oceans Conference.

The panel discussion, aptly themed “Voices from the Blue Frontier,” focused on a more sustainable approach to the “Blue Economy” and shared community experiences from the world’s first experimental deep sea mining project “Solwara One” in Papua New Guinea (PNG), highlighting environmental threats and rights violations of indigenous resource owners and local communities through deep sea mining.

The panel is featuring prominent speakers such as the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF), Francois Martel; Executive Director of PIANGO, Emele Duituturaga; Human Rights Attorney, Julian Aguon; Sarah Thomas nededog, PNG Catholic Cardinal John Ribat and Fair Oceans Expert, Kai Kaschinski.

The side event is designed to provide a platform for engagement and knowledge sharing on the underlying science of seabed mining and to highlight the need for strong governance measures to ensure that appropriate social and environmental safeguards are in place to protect against projected adverse effects of seabed mining in the Pacific Ocean.

“The United Nations Oceans Conference provides a further opportunity for multi-stakeholder participation and partnership building between governments, the private sector and civil society. This event is a demonstration of this inclusive approach and in particular, amplifies the voices of Pacific people, who have the greatest stake in the outcomes of the Oceans Conference,” Emele Duituturaga, Executive Director of PIANGO explained.

“As Small Island Developing States, Pacific Island countries are particularly affected by these ocean developments. Our people rely largely on the ocean and marine resources for their livelihoods, while environmental pollution of oceans and climate change increasingly threaten existing economies.

“For many years, organisations of small-scale fishermen around the world have been fighting against ocean grabbing and the privatisation of fisheries resources. Deep sea mining is an example of such growth-oriented strategies and the unsustainable utilisation of marine resources. It disregards the rights of local communities and their livelihoods, and satisfies the resource needs of industrialised countries and emerging economies,” Ms Duituturaga said.

“Deep sea mining is not a strategy for sustainable development of Pacific Island countries. Deep sea mining and the negative impacts of climate change are based on the same failed model of development. Both threaten the health of the marine environment that is of such vital importance for Pacific Small Island Developing States. We have repeatedly reiterated that we need to rethink prevailing development models and approaches and reshape the Pacific we want.”

The Ocean Conference will result in a Call for Action that has been agreed to by countries, and which will be formally adopted at the conclusion of the Conference. Additional outcomes include the results of seven partnership dialogues that will focus on solutions, and the voluntary commitments to action.

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United Nations against experimental seabed mining in PNG

Merolyn Ten | Post Courier | April 20, 2017

THE United Nations is against the world’s first seabed mining operation which is set to start in two years time in the Bismarck Sea, off the coast of New Ireland Province.

Copper and gold deposits will be mined from the seafloor at a depth of 1600 metres. The UN says this will cause major environmental destruction not only to the communities in New Ireland but the entire Pacific Ocean, and is against the 14 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN.

“There is a high likelihood that mining will disrupt life under the sea and potentially cause mass devastation for biodiversity,” UN resident co-coordinator Ray Trivedy said. The 14 SDG states the importance of conservation and the sustainable use of the ocean, seas and marine resource.

Oceans, especially the Pacific Ocean which PNG is in, contain nearly 200,000 identified species, but actual numbers may lie in the millions. UN main targets were to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution, sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience, and take action for their restoration in order to achieve healthy and productive oceans as stated in the UN Convention Law of Sea.

“I am against sea bed mining because despite what some companies say, I am not convinced that it will lead to sustainable development,” Mr Trivedy said.

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UN Resident Coordinator, Roy Trivedy On Coal Mining in PNG

Leanne Jorari | EMTV News | 7 December 2016

Earlier this week EMTV News reported on the heated debate of coal mining in PNG and since then critics have joined in the debate.

The opposition will not support a coal industry, regardless of it being a lucrative business.

Also speaking against coal mining, UN’s resident coordinator, Roy Trivedy says,

“We should just leave the coal in the ground.”

Affordable and Clean energy is the seventh goal on the list of the United Nations’ global Sustainable Development Goals.

With this in mind, PNG being a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement, many have opposed the idea of coal being mined in the country.

The fossil fuel has many adverse effects including the emissions of
greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

Mr Trivedy, who himself is quite vocal about renewable energy, spoke out against coal mining in the country.

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