The deep ocean might be an environment out of sight for most of us, but it plays a key role in making life on Earth possible. Its cold dark depths store vast quantities of carbon, drawing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via a ‘biological pump mechanism’ and its deep waters drive ocean currents that regulate the planet’s temperature. This environment also supports a unique web of life and is an important source for new medical discoveries. A key component of the COVID-19 test, for example, came from bacteria living around a hydrothermal vent. Our fragile and vital deep ocean is, however, facing a new threat.
The murky world of deep-sea mining
Deep-sea mining is a nascent extractive industry that would threaten the health of the deep ocean and could be given the green light in as little as two years. Prospective miners aim to mine metal-rich mineral deposits from the ocean’s depths. Polymetallic nodules on the abyssal plains in the western Pacific are the speculative miners’ current focus. Strip mining these nodules has been likened to crushing corals and all associated life to make cement – although a notable difference is that these nodules take millions of years to accrue. Deep-sea mining also risks disturbing some of the planet’s largest carbon stores in the seabed and the wider ocean’s future sequestration capacity.
This threat comes within a global context of growing recognition and accountability for the damage that humanity has wreaked on nature’s ability to sustain life itself. If deep-sea mining were to go ahead, it would undermine international commitments to redress the balance. These include the Sustainable Development Goals and the recent Leaders Pledge for Nature which commits leaders from 91 countries, including the UK, to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.
Its commitments notwithstanding, the UK is sponsoring two of the largest deep-sea mining exploration areas in the Pacific Ocean, led by UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of US company Lockheed Martin. As a sponsoring state, the UK has legal duties to “protect and preserve the marine environment, prevent pollution of the marine environment by its contractor, apply the precautionary approach, employ best environmental practices and conduct environmental impact assessments.” However, a recent report led by Greenpeace UK and Blue Marine Foundation found the UK’s deep-sea mining exploration contracts to be unlawful. The report highlights internal government memos revealing the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to be aware of the ‘reputational risks’ associated with the rush to mine the deep.
Growing calls for a halt
Concerns that the environmental, social, and financial risks posed by deep-sea mining outweigh the benefits continue to grow, and around the world momentum for a moratorium is building rapidly. Civil society, scientists and policy experts, government and policymakers, industry, communities across the Pacific, financial institutions, fishing associations, scientists, well-known figures including Sir David Attenborough, and many others are increasingly highlighting the risks. In September the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress saw its members, including 37 states and over 500 civil society organizations, vote overwhelmingly in support of a moratorium. The UK abstained from the vote. Pacific groups have called on the UK’s Minister for the Pacific and Environment, Lord Zac Goldsmith, to back calls for a freeze on the industry. So far Lord Goldsmith has resisted calls for support. Baroness Natalie Bennett has both called on the government to commit to a moratorium and raised concerns over the ‘clear conflict of interest’ surrounding the International Seabed Authority (the intergovernmental body charged with regulating deep-sea mining).
Would-be miners argue that any minerals will be used in batteries for smart technology, a claim impossible to substantiate since these metals are also used in other sectors, including defense. Even if true, rapid innovation in the battery industry is moving away from these metals. A new generation of batteries that do not require minerals found in the deep sea is entering the market, pioneered by Tesla, Mercedes, IBM, Honda, SAIC Motors, and the world’s number two carmaker, BYD. A recent report by Earthworks found that recycling minerals has the potential to significantly reduce primary demand for new mining. Pioneering leaders in the automotive and tech industries - including Volvo, BMW, Samsung SDI, and Google - have committed to keeping the deep sea out of their products, supporting a moratorium on the industry. Banks and financial institutions, including Standard Chartered Bank and Lloyds Banking Group are also pre-divesting from the industry.
As the UK government pushes forward away from fossil fuels and towards net zero and greener alternatives, they must invest in making better use of existing resources, rather than supporting new extractive industries that we do not need. To safeguard future generations from the worst impacts of the dual climate and biodiversity emergencies, the government needs to show leadership and prioritize the health of the deep ocean by supporting a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition is an international coalition of 90+ organizations that aim to safeguard the long-term health of our ocean by addressing the greatest threats it faces.
Sian Owen, director of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, will be featured as a panellist for ‘The Forgotten 70%: the crucial place of oceans in climate and biodiversity’ at the autumn conference tomorrow (23 October), at 17:30-19:00 in the Eastside Rooms (Main Hall).
To access the full programme, please visit the Green Party website.