Should deep-sea mining be allowed to go ahead?

The Future We Need and the Goa Foundation are running a campaign to ensure that future deep-sea mining activity respects principles of intergenerational equity. The Intergenerational Foundation is supporting this initiative. Melissa Bui outlines the demands of  the campaign and how individuals and organisations can show their support

The deep sea – a term typically referring to waters beyond national jurisdictions – covers two-thirds of the Earth’s surface and is the potential source of some of the world’s most valuable minerals, including cobalt, nickel, gold and copper.

The international discourse on the benefits of extracting these minerals for the common good is growing. Deep-sea mining is viewed by some as a key solution to the expected hike in demand for cobalt in the coming decades – an essential material needed in the production of electric vehicle batteries.

It has also been claimed that some marine compounds found in deep-sea ecosystems could potentially hold anti-viral properties, which could help with creating vaccines for coronaviruses such as COVID-19.

At present, deep-sea waters are unregulated. However, this is set to change this year. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is the international authority that has been delegated with the task of regulating sea mining activity in international waters and is expected to publish the finalised international rules on mining – the International Mining Code – in July.

The Future We Need (TFWN) and the Goa Foundation (GF) are running a global campaign to ensure that deep-sea mining will not leave future generations with fewer resources. They want the ISA to respect the key principles of intergenerational equity by implementing them into the International Mining Code.

The Intergenerational Foundation is among numerous organisations openly supporting this campaign. As the TFWN and Goa Foundation emphasise, however, before we consider how deep-sea mining should be regulated, the most immediate concern should be how we can first develop a thorough understanding of its potential impacts.

The key principles of intergenerational equity

The global campaign is based on a set of 11 key principles outlined in two letters addressed to the ISA. They define the role of the Authority as well as how it is expected to protect the rights of future generations.

Some of the key principles centre upon making sure that these valuable resources are inherited by future generations, either directly through conservation or indirectly through the intergenerational transfer of their full value. The latter would occur when the sale of these precious metals and minerals is permitted by the ISA. In these instances, only two costs should be incurred – the cost of extraction, as well as a reasonable level of profit for the extractor – while the rest of the economic rent should be placed into a Future Generations Fund to provide income for future cohorts.

However, these sales transactions should not be carried out without a limit. Like current generations, generations yet to be born will also need access to rare minerals to sustain their own low-carbon or carbon-neutral lifestyles. Such a reality will not be possible if the necessary materials have already been consumed. This brings us to the next key demand in the campaign: to set a cap on the level of deep-sea mining activity that a generation can engage in to ensure sufficient availability over multiple generations.

And what measures does the campaign propose to ensure that these limits will be respected? TFWN and GF believe that only a control system that includes “a high security mineral supply chain system, best practices from outsourcing contracts, system auditors, a whistleblower reward and protection scheme” would be fitting to protect “some of our most valuable assets”.

Calling for a moratorium

The question at the forefront of many experts’ minds is whether deep-sea mining activity should be permitted at all. From the perspective of intergenerational fairness, if the true cost of extracting these valuable resources is underestimated, then it is not possible to pass the full value of these minerals on to future generations. As it stands, deep-sea waters are largely unexplored – it is estimated that around 80% of the ocean floor has yet to be observed – meaning that our understanding of the true consequences of seabed mining is currently extremely limited.

The ISA have already been criticised for underestimating the potential damage caused by the disposal of extraction waste. In 2019, the ISA estimated that sediment from extraction waste would travel at most 62 miles from the point of disposal if dumped near the water’s surface, but a recent analysis of the academic literature suggests that the true value is likely to be much higher. According to Greenpeace experts, “this pollution could travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometres”.

A recent assessment of the risks and impacts has also suggested that seabed mining may not only displace, destroy and fragment deep-sea life and their habitats, many of which will recover slowly, but also threaten the microbial organisms responsible for carbon-capturing processes occurring on the ocean floor.

It is crucial that we thoroughly develop our knowledge base before we make decisions on whether – and how deep – seabed mining should be carried out. Currently, the ISA has already issued 30 licences for deep-sea mining operations, many of which are scheduled to start in 2020 once the International Mining Code is established. There is not enough time for this level and volume of research to be produced and synthesised. The campaign is therefore calling for a moratorium to be imposed on seabed mining until enough research has been done – a first necessary step towards respecting principles of intergenerational equity.

Support the campaign

As an organisation striving to preserve the rights of younger generations and those yet to be born, the Intergenerational Foundation has joined the coalition in support of this campaign. There is still time for other organisations and individuals to show their support: the demand letter produced by the TFWN and GF, which contains the full list of principles, can be signed by supporters and is linked below.

Sign as an individual:

Sign on behalf of an organisation:       

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