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This "Planet Saving Technology" Is On The Verge Of An International Ban
And it could save Earth's largest ecosystem.
In theory, deep-sea mining is a brilliant idea. You see, reaching net-zero will take a massive supply of hard-to-find materials like nickel and cobalt. These are essential for the batteries and magnets that make EVs and renewable power grids possible. But, mining and refining these materials has a plethora of geopolitical, economic, environmental and humanitarian issues. Yet, strewn across much of the deep ocean floor are metallic nodules full of cobalt, nickel, silver, gold, manganese and zinc. These nodes are easy to harvest, take little energy to refine, and are incredibly plentiful. As such, deep-sea mining, which aims to utilise this untapped resource, could solve one of the biggest problems with our energy transition. But, it turns out, deep sea mining is less of a climate saviour and more forbidden fruit, and there is a growing international call to ban it. But why?
So, how does deep-sea mining work? Well, it’s almost exactly like a giant ocean-going hoover. A ship sends an ROV (remote-operated vehicle) down to the ocean floor that is tethered to the vessel. The vehicle drives along the floor, hoovering up the top layer of the ocean floor. It sends the sucked-up mixture of sediment and nodules hundreds of meters up to the ship via a tube. At the ship, this slurry is sifted, separating the metal-rich nodules from the sediment and seawater, which is then jettisoned from the ship.
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Sounds simple enough, right? So why are there hundreds of scientists, several countries and some of the world’s largest companies wanting to ban deep-sea mining?
Well, it turns out this practice is far from ecologically sound and can have some significant climate implications. Let me explain.
The deep sea sediment jettisoned by the mining ship saturated the entire water column. Not only does this clog up many filter feeders, but this sediment can be rich in very harmful heavy metals, poisoning creatures over a wide area. A recent study from Japan in 2020 analysed the ecosystem around an area before and after an experimental deep-sea mining field test took place. After the deep-sea mining mineral extraction, they found a significant decline in animal populations. A plethora of similar studies have found similar significant negative impacts on the ocean ecosystem due to deep-sea mining.
There is also a carbon issue with deep-sea mining. You see, the ocean absorbs about a third of our carbon emissions, and this eventually titrates out as calcium carbonate and other carbon-rich sediments that build up on the ocean floor. Disturbing the sediment can both release carbon stored into the atmosphere and can also reduce the rate at which the ocean can take up and store carbon. This means that if deep-sea mining is done at a large scale, it could have a significant yet indirect climate impact.
Now, before we go onto the political debate around deep-sea mining use, it is worth mentioning that there are companies out there trying to make less damaging deep-sea mining rigs. These separate the nodules from the sediment at the ROV and only send the nodules up to the surface. In theory, these are less damaging; however, there are few studies into them, and the scientific viewpoint on them seems to be that they are still destructive, just less so.
Now, luckily, there are no companies currently operating commercial deep-sea mining rigs yet. However, there is growing pressure for this industry to kick-start and scale incredibly quickly as the demand for cheap mineral mining is growing, and deep-sea mining can potentially meet this demand.
This worry arose during a recent International Seabed Authority (ISA) meeting in Jamaica to discuss a moratorium on deep-sea mining. The ISA is a UN agency tasked with looking after the ocean floor and how we use it. A coalition of nations at this meeting pushed for a ban on deep-sea mining but were opposed by Mexico, Nauru and mainly China. This should be no surprise as one of China’s fastest-growing and most profitable industries is its renewables’ industry (EVs, batteries, solar panels, etc.) and securing a cheap and plentiful source of materials can help them cling to their domination of this industry, and keep their economy afloat.
Thankfully, though, by the end of the meeting, the coalition won a concession to discuss the ban at next year’s meeting. This is still a setback and gives more time for deep-sea mining companies to get a foot through the door before international legislation can be written up. It is also worrying how aggressively China is willing to defend its deep-sea mining interests. But this concession means there is still momentum on getting a blanket international ban on this technology.
But it isn’t just this coalition pushing to ban deep-sea mining. 60 environmental and ecological scientists from the UK recently wrote to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, urging him to back the moratorium on banning deep-sea mining. This moratorium has also been joined by BMW, WWF, Samsung, Google, Volvo, Sweden, Ireland, Fiji, Samoa, France and New Zealand.
So, does this massive support mean that deep-sea mining will soon be banned?
Well, collectively, these countries, companies and charities are minuscule compared to China. Moreover, China is aggressively expanding its ocean territory across the Indo-Pacific and is desperate for an ample supply of these minerals and materials, so they have a perfect storm for pushing for the use of deep-sea mining. Will they hold enough sway to push back China’s deep-sea mining aspiration? For the sake of the oceans and our climate, let’s hope so.
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