Some people argue the answer lies in the deep blue sea – but does it?
One of the proposed solutions to meet the global demand for minerals is deep seabed mining (DSM). Large areas of the ocean floor are rich in some of the minerals that are needed for the energy transition and there is a proposal that these could be commercially exploited. Because the ‘deep seabed’ lies beyond national jurisdiction, it is the International Seabed Authority (ISA) – an intergovernmental body created under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – that determines access and licences to what is known as “the Area”. The ISA is mandated to “organise and control all mineral-resources-related activities in the Area for the benefit of humankind as a whole”. As part of this, the ISA must ensure the “effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects that may arise from deep seabed related activities”.
While the discussion about the pros and cons of deep seabed mining has been rumbling on for years, it became a time-critical issue in 2021 when the small Pacific nation of Nauru notified the ISA that it intended to mine the seabed. This notification triggered a two-year rule for the ISA to finalise regulations about the commercial exploitation of minerals from the deep seabed. This deadline has now passed.
The ISA has been holding a series of negotiations over the last two years. They met again for three weeks last month and decided that more time is needed to draw up regulations before DSM can get the formal go ahead. A number of countries, including Chile, France and Costa Rica, have been calling for a moratorium – a kind of precautionary pause – on or, an outright ban of, deep seabed mining. ISA members agreed at the eleventh hour to allow the discussion of a moratorium on the agenda for negotiations in 2024.
A welcome pause for thought…
News that a moratorium will be on the agenda for ISA discussions next year is very welcome, not least as it’s something we called in our recent policy position on deep seabed mining. From a scientific perspective, there are strong grounds for a moratorium while countries and the scientific community deepen the evidence base on a range of potential impacts. There needs to be more robust evidence on DSM’s impacts on the marine and adjacent environments, including utilising expertise from a breadth of scientific disciplines, sectors and stakeholders. Existing evidence must be considered and evidence gaps addressed before taking potentially irreversible decisions with long-term impacts.
In the meantime, the UK needs to implement policies to properly kick-start a circular economy for critical minerals – that would both help meet the mineral demands of the energy transition and reduce the reliance on primary extraction. The transition to a circular economy will require coherent, harmonised long-term policies, alongside policy action to reduce the social and environmental impacts of primary extraction. Our recommendations to government on this include the need to build and invest in recycling infrastructure that enables the recovery of critical minerals and to incentivise resource-efficient design and production alongside assessments of materials substitutability.
What is the UK government position on DSM?
The UK government currently isn’t explicitly backing a moratorium on DSM, unlike many other countries. What it has stated is a commitment to not sponsoring or supporting the issuing of any exploitation licences for deep seabed mining projects “until there is sufficient scientific evidence about the potential impacts on deep-sea ecosystems and strong and enforceable environmental regulations in place”. The Environment All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) has recently written to the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, urging him to go an important step further and back a moratorium on deep seabed mining.
The chemical sciences have a vital dual role to play in achieving a circular economy for critical minerals and in filling some of the evidence gaps around deep seabed mining. We will continue to play our part in influencing on this topic, bringing scientific evidence to the attention of policymakers and highlighting the real opportunities for achieving a sustainable future.