Posted August 6, 2020
The world is hungry for resources to power the green transition. As we increasingly look to solar, wind, geothermal and move towards decarbonization, consumption of minerals such as cobalt, lithium and copper, which underpin them, is set to grow markedly.
One study by the World Bank estimates that to meet this demand, cobalt production will need to grow by 450% from 2018 to 2050, in pursuit of keeping global average temperature rises below 2°C.
The mining of any material can give rise to complex environmental and social impacts. Cobalt, however, has attracted particular attention in recent years over concerns of unsafe working conditions and labour rights abuses associated with its production.
New battery technologies are under development with reduced or zero cobalt content, but it is not yet determined how fast and by how much these technologies and circular economy innovations can decrease overall cobalt demand.
Deep-sea mining has the potential to supply cobalt and other metals free from association with such social strife, and can reduce the raw material cost and carbon footprint of much-needed green technologies.
On the other hand, concerned scientists have highlighted our limited knowledge of the deep-sea and its ecosystems. The potential impact of mining on deep-sea biodiversity, deep-sea habitats and fisheries are still being studied, and some experts have questioned the idea that environmental impacts of mining in the deep-sea can be mitigated in the same way as those on land.
In the face of this uncertainty, the European Parliament, the prime ministers of Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and more than 80 organizations have called for a 10-year moratorium on deep-sea mining, until its potential impacts and their management methods are further investigated.
A stark choice is fast approaching
The world is facing a stark choice, whether to press ahead with mining the ocean’s floors, hoping that the benefits will outweigh the as-yet-unknown environmental costs, or whether to pause for research and better understanding of what’s at stake.
The International Seabed Authority was established to organize, regulate and control mining on the ocean floor beyond national boundaries. Its regulations determine environmental regulations, financial payment regime for benefit sharing and other standards and guidelines.
The International Seabed Authority has already drafted exploitation regulations for deep-sea minerals, which will be decided upon at either its October 2020 assembly or its 2021 assembly. Once regulations are finalized and adopted by member states, seabed exploitation contracts could be issued for mining to begin.