How to Mine the Oceans Sustainably

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Our ocean holds the key to some of our world’s greatest challenges, such as combating climate change and ensuring affordable and clean energy for all.

One of those challenges will be to satisfy the increasing global demand for critical minerals to support a future society based on renewable energy and technology. As the world’s population continues to grow, from 7.8 billion today to 9.6 billion in 2050, it will be critical to find new sources of reliable and ethically sourced minerals.

If extracted in an environmentally sustainable manner, metals found in the deep seabed such as nickel, copper, manganese and cobalt, have the potential to help meet our global clean energy goals.

But to make this happen, we need deep-sea research to help us identify the necessary measures to prevent and reduce potential environmental impacts. Deep-sea research is also critical to advancing global knowledge of marine biodiversity and ecological processes.

Deep-sea science and innovation will be key to delivering a more sustainable ocean. It is also essential to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and it is pivotal to unleashing the promises of the Blue Economy.

Recently, 30 of the world’s top scientists and legal experts in the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) wrapped up the 26th annual session of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) Legal and Technical Commission. At the top of the agenda was a question: How can we sustainably develop marine mineral resources, whilst ensuring protection of the environment and biodiversity?

MEETING CLEAN ENERGY DEMAND

In a report published recently, the World Bank estimates that more than three billion tons of minerals and metals will be needed by 2050 to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less. 

The production of battery metals such as lithium and cobalt alone will have to increase by nearly 500 percent by 2050 to meet the growing demand for clean energy technologies such as wind, solar and geothermal power, as well as the energy storage required to transition to a low-carbon economy.

Many of these critical minerals are found in the deep seabed. Three types of resources have been identified so far: polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulfides and cobalt-rich manganese crusts. ISA’s mandate under international law is to ensure these minerals are extracted in a sustainable way: through a global regulatory framework that contains robust safeguards to ensure the protection of the marine environment and biodiversity.

A GLOBAL RESOURCE

ISA is an international organization made up of 167 member states and the European Union, along with 92 observers including 30 observer states, 32 intergovernmental organizations and 30 NGOs. ISA is mandated under UNCLOS to regulate all mineral-related activities in the deep seabed area beyond national jurisdiction. That’s just over half of the seafloor of the ocean.

This area and its mineral resources have been set aside by UNCLOS as the common heritage of mankind, to be accessed only with the permission of ISA. Financial and other economic benefits derived from activities undertaken in this area must be equitably shared among all States.

Over the last 25 years, ISA has developed a comprehensive set of regulations dealing with exploration for mineral resources in this area. Building on this, and as exploration has become increasingly mature, a major effort is underway to develop regulations for the extraction of these minerals, known as the Mining Code. Once in place, the code will require any mining companies planning to undertake activities in the international seabed area to abide by stringent global environmental requirements.

SUSTAINABILITY PARTNERSHIPS

ISA and UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC-UNESCO) have joined forces to harness the potential of deep-sea exploration, and contribute to the objectives of the U.N. Decade, by improving mapping of the seabed and enhancing ocean observing networks.

By building an inclusive and innovative partnership, ISA and IOC-UNESCO are meeting their strategic objectives and those of the U.N. Decade to universally foster action to advance ocean science for the benefit of humankind.

Multilateral partnerships of this nature will be key to achieving the goals of the U.N. Decade.

SHARING DATA

One of our most important assets in this effort are data. ISA has harnessed the power of the industry involved in exploration work to gather critical scientific knowledge to inform decision-making processes.

Over the past 30 years, there have been more than 800 research cruises to the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean alone, totalling more than 6,000 days at sea. In financial terms, this represents an investment in marine science of several hundreds of million dollars.

This includes seafloor mapping, at extremely fine levels of resolution, of some of the deepest and most remote parts of the seafloor, as well as collection and analysis of thousands of rock and sediment samples, and biological specimens.

Most of what we have learnt about the geology of the seabed and its environmental characteristics over the past 25 years has come from the exploration projects authorized by ISA.

And it is through this research—broadly shared with all stakeholders through ISA’s first-ever deep-sea flora and fauna database, called DeepData—that we will be able to identify the best measures required to protect the marine environment now and into the future.

DeepData is a repository of all the information on these ecosystems found by deep-sea explorers under contract by ISA. We now have the opportunity to deliver transformative knowledge on the biodiversity of the seabed, and to create a legacy of new data, tools and training to effectively protect the marine environment.

Together, we must strive to foster a greater understanding of our ocean and help deliver a more sustainable future for all.

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