Published: 27.07.2020 Updated: 28.07.2020
This article was first published by World Resources Institute 23 June.
While these materials have historically been sourced on land, there’s increasing interest in tapping into supplies found underwater, through deep-seabed mining. Yet a new Blue Paper commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy finds that deep-seabed mining is a potentially risky proposition that may, in fact, be unnecessary given the rapid development of alternative technologies that reduce demand.
Deep-seabed mining has been heralded as the key for rapidly transitioning to clean energy due to a wide range of potential benefits, such as: providing a new source of metals (potentially facilitating decarbonization); providing income to states, industry and people; boosting technological innovation; releasing less CO2 than land mining; representing less burden than land mining; and requiring no permanent ocean infrastructure.
Despite this, deep-seabed mining has poorly understood environmental impacts. There are no studies to date that investigate the impacts of mining the deep sea at scales that resemble those of commercial mining land activities.
The little research that is available paints a concerning picture. Studies found that deep-seabed mining will create disturbance to life on the seafloor that can last for decades. The crushing, removal and smothering and changes to the environment can lead to loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and perhaps even local extinctions. Damaging ocean habitats in this way would undermine ocean sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea declares seafloor minerals in international waters to be the common heritage of mankind. Both the mining of these minerals and protection of the marine environment are under the jurisdiction of the International Seabed Authority (ISA). There are concerns about these conflicting ISA mandates, and the capacity to address environmental management. There are also questions about whether the benefits of exploitation will flow to developing countries as intended and achieve intergenerational equity. There’s also potential for transboundary impacts of mining sediment plumes and land-based impacts associated with delivering and processing deep-seabed minerals.
As such, our study suggests that deep-seabed mining should be approached in a precautionary and adaptive manner in order to avoid and minimize harm to habitats, communities and ecosystems. Appropriate time should be taken to develop regulations and formulate regional environmental plans. We need considerably better knowledge of the larger-scale environmental impacts as well as confirmation of the global benefit from mining activities before pursuing industrial-scale deep-seabed mining.
The Blue Paper identified several opportunities to ensure that scaling up renewable energy does not come at the cost of damaging unique ocean habitats:
Peter M. Haugan, Lisa Levin et al. (2020). «What Role for Ocean-Based Renewable Energy and Deep-Seabed Minerals in a Sustainable Future?» HLP Blue Paper, 14. Link: https://www.oceanpanel.org/blue-papers/ocean-energy-and-mineral-sources