Press pause on deep seabed mining

It is often said that regulators lag behind business and research. But when it comes to a new extractive industry, regulators can do one smart thing to catch up.

By Jessica Battle, WWF No Deep Seabed Mining Initiative Leader

Regulators can and must push pause on deep seabed mining. Deep seabed mining must not go ahead until the environmental, social and economic risks are understood, and all alternatives to deep sea minerals have been explored.

This is why.

For most people, the size and scale of the world’s ocean are hard to imagine. The ocean holds over 96% of the planet’s water, with an estimated 1 million species. It provides innumerable benefits to people and nature through renewable ecosystem services — including food, climate regulation, carbon sequestration and so much more. Coastal communities from the poles to the tropics garner livelihoods from the ocean, as well as cultural identity.

But the ocean is under serious pressure from a multitude of human activities, and suffers from pollution, overfishing, climate change, and much more. Deep seabed mining, if permitted, would be adding another threat to an already strained system and cause significant damage to important and near-pristine ecosystems on huge scales.

A high-density coral community in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deepwater Wonders of Wake.

The projected intensity and methods of deep seabed mining would remove entire habitats, the species they host and the services they provide. It would damage climate regulation, fisheries, the provision of marine genetic resources — future medicines and other important biochemical discoveries would be scuppered — and affect the culture and well-being of millions of people.

And what if there is an accident? Who would pay for damaging the resources that in some cases belong to all of humanity?

There is a growing movement of scientists, businesses, and policymakers who understand what is at stake, and are speaking out. We need to ensure they are heard, and action is taken to halt deep seabed mining before it begins.

Now is the time for smart, sustainable investing. Major banks such as Credit Suisse, ABN Amro, Natwest and Standard Chartered already have policies in place saying they won’t invest in or lend money to deep seabed mining projects. And more are coming on board.

In another important signal to the investment community, the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative has issued a paper dissuading investors from deep seabed mining. It says there is no way in which the financing of deep-sea mining activities can be consistent with the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles, or compatible with the spirit and intent of a sustainable blue economy.

A sea toad hanging out, waiting for its next meal to swim by. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deepwater Wonders of Wake.

In the paper, UNEP FI recommends that financial institutions instead focus on alternative strategies that would reduce the environmental footprint of terrestrial mining, and support the transition to a circular economy that promote the reuse of raw materials in the economy, making current minerals demand obsolete.

Calls for a moratorium on deep seabed mining are increasing. Big brands — the very companies that are being touted as would-be customers of minerals from the deep — are saying no thanks. Even the electric vehicle industry isn’t biting, with major battery manufacturers and car brands saying these minerals are not needed in their products. Samsung SDI, BMW, Volvo Group, Volkswagen Group, Scania, Rivian Automotive and Renault Group all have joined the calls for a moratorium.

Other businesses, such as the emerging giant battery maker Northvolt, Google, Philips and Microsoft have stated they are not interested in minerals from the ocean.

Recent science tells us that the scientific knowledge is far too limited to make any informed, evidence-based decisions around deep seabed mining. Much more independent ocean science needs to be done, possibly for decades, before we know enough to understand these ecosystems fully and to predict what damage large-scale removal of habitat and species would entail.

Now is the time for prudence. It’s time to push pause. Our ocean is in the balance, and so is our planet. Stopping deep seabed mining before it starts speaks to the wider needs of our society to start investing and acting sustainably. Mining a pristine, untouched and un-researched part of our planet is a step backward, not a step forward toward a balanced, equitable and sustainable future.

Innovation is happening — battery chemistry, recycling, transport systems are being rethought. Smart investors look at such areas rather than to financing destructive extractives.

My colleagues and I look forward to working with smart investors, businesses and regulators — the switch to an equitable, “blue” future does not have to cost the ocean.

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