The ban on deep-sea mining risks losing its traction—and Europe is divided on the issue.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ratified by 167 countries plus the European Union, mining in the deep sea—an area covering 54 per cent of the world’s oceans—is banned. Agreed in 1982, the deal was that the ban would be lifted when there were international agreements on protection of the marine environment and on the sharing of benefits from such mining among all countries.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA) was established in 1994 to draw up the two agreements. It has however failed to do so.
An appendix to UNCLOS affirmed however that if a state-party collaborating with a mining corporation applied to start deep-sea mining, the ISA had two years to produce the agreements or mining could begin. In June 2021, Nauru and the Canadian TMC (The Metals Company) applied. So, from this July onwards, the UNCLOS constraint has gone.
Some alarmed governments, led by Spain, Germany and France, have demanded a moratorium, citing the potential ecological damage of deep-sea mining. Hundreds of marine scientists have said it would cause huge damage, including reducing the oceans’ capacity to act as carbon sinks.
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A powerful pro-mining lobby has however been mobilising. An Economist editorial on July 6th was headed ‘The world needs more battery metals. Time to mine the seabed’. It downplayed the ecological risks, asserting that the damage would be less than mining on land, drawing on an article a few days earlier—which reads like public relations on behalf of TMC—in which it was claimed that ‘mining the seabed is more environmentally friendly than mining in Indonesia’. The leader said opposition reflected ‘questionable concerns of conservationists’, without mentioning the marine scientists mainly leading the charge.
Those promoting deep-sea mining present it as necessary for the ‘green transition’: minerals from sources on land are insufficient, they argue, so seabed mining is ‘inevitable’. Yet it is estimated that fewer than 5 per cent of the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles, mobile phones and laptops are recycled—and lithium has not been found in the sea. Perhaps, moreover, new technologies could reduce the need for such minerals.
If mining were to take off in a big way, reduced carbon-dioxide absorption by the ocean is not the only concern. Recent German research has shown that polymetallic, black, potato-sized nodules sitting on the seabed thousands of metres below the surface are highly radioactive. Bringing up millions of tons of these nodules could do severe harm to human health. There is no evidence those developing a mining code have even considered this.
And that is not all. UNCLOS was a complex set of compromises, product of over 25 years of tortuous negotiations. It was motivated by two geopolitical concerns: to prevent great-power conflict over the oceans’ resources and to ensure everything in the oceans would be treated as ‘the common heritage of mankind’.
The failure of the ISA to find a formula after 29 years risks the biggest resource grab in history—overlain by a power struggle between China and a few other countries with mining ambitions. So far, 31 exploration licences have been issued by the ISA, China having easily the largest number with five.
In this there is remarkable irony. Back in 1982, China led the G77 group of developing countries in demanding the benefits of mining should be shared by all. Today, while a large group of African countries has been lobbying for a 45 per cent tax on profits on mineral extraction from the ‘blue commons’, China has led the opposition—demanding that the tax rate should be only 2 per cent and that the ISA encourage venture capital to accelerate corporate investment.
Scared by the prospect that China will extend its control of global mining, the United States government is expressing alarm at Chinese domination. For its part, Europe should be alarmed too.
There is no legal or moral ground for allowing a few multinational corporations to profit from the vast array of minerals under the sea. European countries must give this issue much higher priority.
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Norway has recently said it will start deep-sea mining and a Norwegian company, Loke Marine Minerals, has even bought a subsidiary of the US arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin, which had acquired two exploration licences from the ISA in collaboration with the British government. Europe thus stands divided.
Even those European countries which have called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining have only emphasised the ecological concerns. They must not neglect the vital commons principles and distributional imperatives.
Guy Standing is honorary co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network. He is author of Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth (Pelican, 2019) and The Blue Commons: Rescuing the Economy of the Sea (Pelican, 2022).