- The Scientific Advisory Board of European Academies has announced its support for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
- In a new report, the council expresses skepticism about the need for deep-sea mining to meet the critical mineral needs of renewable technologies.
- He also points out that deep sea mining would cause irreparable damage to marine ecosystems and that the mining regulator does not have a scientific definition of what constitutes serious harm.
- Many European nations and companies currently have licenses to explore the international seabed for resources, although exploitation has yet to begin.
National science academies across Europe have become the latest group to announce their support for a moratorium on deep-sea mining, a proposed but contested activity that would extract minerals like copper, zinc and manganese from seabed for commercial purposes.
In a report published on June 8, the European Academies Scientific Advisory Council (EASAC) disputes the widespread claim that seabed minerals are needed to switch to renewable energy technologies, arguing that the necessary metals are available from other sources. The group – an association of 28 national science academies from EU member states, Norway, Switzerland and the UK which provides independent advice to policy makers – also questions the ability of the International Authority of the Seabed (ISA) to fully and correctly assess the environmental impacts of mining. in international waters.
The ISA is a UN-associated body established to regulate deep-sea mining in international waters while protecting it from “serious harm” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS ).
Many European countries and companies currently hold licenses issued by the ISA to explore the international seabed for resources, although exploitation has yet to begin. Norway also plans to exploit the seabed in its territorial waters and the neighboring continental shelf.
Next month, ISA members will meet at the agency’s headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica, to discuss whether to allow deep-sea mining and the rules that should govern such activity. Two years ago, the Republic of Nauru, a Pacific island state, invoked a “two-year rule” that urges the ISA to agree mining regulations that would allow mining to start. Nauru sponsors Nauru Ocean Resources Incorporated (NORI), a subsidiary of Canada’s The Metals Company (TMC). TMC has previously said it plans to start mining minerals from the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific as early as 2024 after applying for a mining license earlier that year. The company has already undertaken a deep sea mining test in the CCZ in 2022.
Michael Norton, EASAC’s environment director, said the claim that deep-sea mining is necessary for a green energy transition is “misleading”.
“Deep sea mining would not provide many of the critical materials needed for the green transition and other high-tech sectors,” Norton said in a statement.
The report refers to a 2020 study published by the European Commission which found that while there was a moderate supply risk for metals like cobalt, other metals, such as manganese, nickel and copper , were at low to very low supply risk. He also refers to an ISA report which found that under the highest production scenario, which is based on the assumption of 12 to 18 parallel mining operations, deep sea mining would account for 50% of the current annual demand for manganese and cobalt, but only 20% of the current demand for nickel and only 2% of the greater demand for copper.
In a press briefing, Norton said there was also “huge” potential for obtaining metals through recycling processes, but that potential was underutilized.
“There are some very important first steps taken by the [European] Commission to Recycle Batteries,” Norton said. “And we see this as the first step towards a much more effective recycling policy in Europe and, by implication, we would also recommend it to other countries. [to reduce] demand for virgin materials.
The report also states that “it is not yet established what level of environmental damage would be considered serious or significant enough to warrant denial of a contract”, which calls into question the ISA’s decision-making processes when it is about issuing mining licenses.
“The serious harm debate is just beginning and far from quantitative,” Norton said. “If the ISA gives a contract, then by definition it judges that it is not serious.”
Although there are many knowledge gaps about the impacts of deep-sea mining, large areas of the seabed will be damaged and biota killed, said Lise Øvreås, a professor at the University of Bergen in Norway. and a member of EASAC, in a statement.
“There is also a risk of substantial side effects due to the large amounts of released sediment,” Øvreås said. “The seabed took thousands of years to form, and the damage will be irreparable on similar time scales.”
A recent article published in Current biology compiled a list of 5,142 species that have not yet been scientifically described in the CCZ, 90% of which were found in areas set aside for deep-sea mining.
However, the amount of life in the deep ocean is still debated. On its website, TMC refers to a PNAS study which indicates that “terrestrial biomass is approximately two orders of magnitude higher than marine biomass”. The company says there is far less life in the CCZ than on land, making it “one of the least populated areas on the planet.”
“While we can’t promise that no species will go extinct on the high seas, we know we can do much better than the status quo when it comes to metal production,” TMC said on its website during its consultation on June 9. has led to species extinction and biodiversity loss for centuries.
Norton acknowledged that land-based mining can be harmful, and said deep-sea mining is often referred to as “the lesser of two evils”. But there are differences, he continues.
“Land mining is under our control,” Norton said. “The environmental impact is controllable; human rights abuses can be stopped with proper governance and proper determination on the part of politicians. By contrast, he said, deep-sea mining is “out of sight,” making its real impacts unknowable and unmanageable.
EASAC also points out that the mission of the ISA seems to go against both the Convention on Biological Diversity and the so-called BBNJ agreement aimed at increasing the protection of marine biodiversity.
“Further reflection may be required if direct conflicts between the objectives and missions of these conventions are to be avoided,” the authors write in the report.
Matt Gianni, policy adviser to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), told Mongabay he believed the EASAC statement would carry considerable weight in the deep sea mining debate and could influence decisions. policies, not only in Europe but beyond.
“It reinforces the message we’ve been putting out: that you don’t have to go deep sea mining to get the metals needed to transition to renewable energy savings and for the use and renewable energy technologies,” said Gianni. “It’s a false narrative.”
Banner image: A sea cucumber in a field of polymetallic nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone at 4,200 meters (13,800 ft) depth. Image courtesy of SMARTEX Project, Natural Environment Research Council, UK.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECalberts.
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