Deep-Sea Mining: Hotly Contended Next FrontierBy MBN Staff | Thu, 04/16/2020 - 18:55
According to the US Geological Survey, considering today's level of consumption, the average newborn infant will need a lifetime supply of 363kg of lead, 340kg of zinc, 680kg of copper, 1,630kg of aluminum, 14,832kg of iron, 12,043kg of clays, 12,797kg of salt and 561,593kg of stone, sand, gravel and cement. Given that in 2050 the population of the Earth is expected to be 9.7 billion, the amount of minerals the mining industry will have to provide is staggering.
While accessing minerals on the planet’s surface becomes increasingly difficult, companies have shifted their focus and dived into the bottom of the ocean. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines deep-sea mining as the process of harnessing materials from the deep sea, which is an area of the ocean below 200m, covering roughly 65 percent of the Earth’s surface. IUCN points out that, so far, “the focus has been on exploration.” The organization goes on to explain that this activity lies beyond national jurisdiction and is therefore regulated by the International Seabed Authority. The intergovernmental body has issued 29 exploration contracts, covering more than 1.5 million km2 of international seabed.
Moving from exploration to exploitation is a hotly debated topic. NGOs like Greenpeace argue that “opening up a new industrial frontier in the largest ecosystem on Earth and undermining an important carbon sink carries significant environmental risks, especially in light of the biodiversity and climate crises facing the natural world and specifically our ocean.” Advocates of deep-sea mining, as reported by The Guardian, counter that this activity “is essential to extract the materials needed for a transition to a green economy by supplying raw materials for key technologies including batteries, computers and phones.” They say that, if properly undertaken, deep-sea mining may be less damaging to the environment and workers than a number of existing operations on the Earth’s land surface.
As with most problems to be solved, the middle way seems the most fruitful. Conciliating the need for a larger amount of ever more diverse minerals with the imperative of protecting Earth’s ecosystems may not be impossible. The World Economic Forum proposes that, to move forward, “stakeholders from multiple perspectives and disciplines come together in a constructive, collaborative and open dialogue and move towards building a shared vision for if and how deep-sea mining contributes to our common future. The aim is to reach an informed and consensual agreement on the most responsible path forward.”