Deep Dive: What’s happening at the ISA
Q&A with Jessica Battle, WWF No Deep Seabed Mining Initiative Leader
Q: The deep sea has been in the news more than ever recently. What’s happening now, and why is it important?
JB: The International Seabed Authority has, on short notice, decided to meet next week. Just as the rest of the world is pausing to understand the risk of a new COVID-19 variant, the ISA based in Kingston, Jamaica, has thrown caution to the wind and said it will meet regardless of how participants will join, if they even can.
Q: What is the ISA and why does this meeting have people concerned?
JB: The International Seabed Authority comprises 167 member states and the European Union, and “has the mandate to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects that may arise from deep-seabed related activities” — that’s how it describes itself. It also says this mandate means ensuring any such activities benefit of all of humanity. But the ISA has a conflicting responsibility related to deep-seabed mining; it is responsible for granting licenses to allow mining and set the rules of the road for how these companies can operate.
If we generously allow that it is even possible for one body to do both these jobs, certainly it’s going to be complicated. It’s going to take time. And that’s why this meeting has people concerned — it’s rushing a process that will have consequence which cannot be undone.
Q: What triggered this rush?
JB: In June this year, the Pacific island nation of Nauru triggered the so-called two-year rule. This states that the ISA must issue regulations within two years if a country has a company that wants to engage in deep-sea mining. Nauru is sponsoring a deep seabed mining company headquartered in Vancouver. The rush to meet this month has sparked concerns across governments and civil society that the meeting will be used to fast track adoption of mining regulations that will allow mining to start without adequate scrutiny or consultation. Given the current structure and decision-making procedures of the ISA, once a single contract for exploitation is granted, the floodgates for commercial mining of the deep sea will be open.
Q: And why would that be bad? What would we be mining, anyway?
JB: We’d be mining the same things we already mine on land — minerals and metals used in electronics like our phones, and in the batteries for e-vehicles and for storing energy from solar and wind production. This is the story mining companies are trying to sell: that our plans to tackle climate change require us to dig up the deep sea.
What they don’t tell you is that the deep seabed is actually a huge carbon sink, and strip-mining it would have consequences we are only beginning to calculate. In fact, the deep sea is Earth’s largest ecosystem, but we know less about it than the moon. More than 600 marine science & policy experts from over 44 countries are calling for a pause on deep sea mining, warning of a “loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning that would be irreversible on multi-generational timescales” and “uncertain impacts on carbon sequestration dynamics and deep-ocean carbon storage.” Our planetary systems are under so much stress right now — it would be the height of recklessness to tamper with a huge part of our planet we do not even understand.
Q: Can anything be done if the ISA goes ahead with developing regulations to allow deep-seabed mining?
JB: Yes. Governments do not need to adopt these. They can instead decide to slow down and put a moratorium on deep seabed mining in place.
And market forces against deep-seabed mining are increasing. Today, the world’s second largest car manufacturer, Volkswagen Group, the outdoor outfitter Patagonia, transport company Scania and Triodos Bank joined a global business initiative calling for a moratorium on deep seabed mining. BMW Group, Volvo Group, Samsung SDI, Philips and Google had already signed on. These forward-looking companies call for a moratorium until the consequences of deep-sea mining have been comprehensively, scientifically investigated and adequate protection for the deep sea can be guaranteed. They also commit not to source any deep-sea mineral resources until then, to refrain from using these deep-sea resources in their supply chains, and not to finance deep-sea mining activities. By sending a signal to the market that there’s no place for these materials, investors and governments will think twice.
Q: OK, but what if we really do need more of these metals and minerals in order to de-carbonize?
JB: Breakthroughs in battery technology are already occurring without them. The giga-scale Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt announced earlier this year it has produced the first lithium-ion battery cell with 100% recycled nickel, manganese and cobalt. Northvolt also says it does not envisage using minerals from the deep sea in its batteries, citing concern about the lack of knowledge about the deep ocean and the risks to the ocean should deep-seabed mining be allowed to proceed.
I think we’ll also see behavior change in the coming decade. Apple just announced it will sell parts and tools for DIY iPhone repairs! Longer life for our gadgets, car sharing, public transport, more and better recycling — these are all ways we can help say no to deep-seabed mining.