Growing list of countries rejects rationale for deep seabed mining
Though the deep sea will remain as distant as outer space for most of humanity, this month we learned people care about the looming threat to its delicately balanced ecosystems. At a meeting of the International Seabed Authority Council, several countries joined the call for a “precautionary pause,” moratorium or an outright ban on deep seabed mining. The list now includes Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, France, Germany, New Zealand, Palau, Panama, Samoa and Spain, with several others indicating they would not be rushed into approving mining operations without sufficient environmental protections and scientific knowledge.
This interest in conserving the deep sea and seabed comes as we confront one of the most challenging and complex tasks humanity has ever faced: transitioning our entire global economy to a sustainable, carbon-neutral model. The shift away from fossil fuels is an essential component of this reset, but some are arguing that the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources and battery storage requires mining the ocean floor for these minerals. It’s a narrative that leverages the acknowledged need to make this transition urgently, but it ignores the facts about the knowns and unknowns of the deep ocean and seabed — our planet’s largest ecosystem by far.
Largely uncharted and little studied, we are only beginning to catalogue the species that dwell in the deep — a gap in our understanding that must be urgently filled given the global crisis of biodiversity loss, with a 69% average decline in wildlife populations since 1970. We do know the seabed is an important carbon sink — making the idea of mining operations that would churn up sediment and release that carbon an unlikely “solution” to our climate crisis. The potential harms extend to fisheries and food security, as well.
But with potential profits “littering” the ocean floor, some are allowing arguments in favour of deep seabed mining to gain traction. While WWF adheres to the science-supported precautionary principle to prevent environmental degradation, we also wanted to offer a data-based counterargument to the claim that deep-sea minerals are necessary for the green transition. We therefore commissioned an independent analysis of the critical minerals needed to support the transition to a green economy. The resulting report, The Future Is Circular: Circular Economy and Critical Minerals for the Green Transition, offers models that show the demand for critical minerals can be reduced by 58% from now to 2050 with new technology, circular economy models and recycling.
I agree with those who say we must take no options off the table in our quest to mitigate the climate crisis already unfolding. I share that grave sense of urgency. But we must not, once again, try to solve a problem while ignoring predicted consequences that could make the original problem even bigger. It is the very gravity of our current circumstances that requires us to act with utmost care for our planet’s life-support system: nature. Opening a new reckless, speculative extractive industry in our ocean is not the path to a nature-positive future and could even exacerbate the climate and biodiversity crises.
As the report outlines, the path forward includes a mix of technological innovation and changes to our current patterns of consumption and waste. With human ingenuity and an enlightened sense of self-preservation, this task is well within our collective capacity to achieve.