7. Deep-sea and space mining
In anticipation of growing scarcity, extractive industries are moving the frontiers of mining to the ocean floor and outer space. Will these pristine places provide us with much-need metals?
The deep sea contains a treasure trove of minerals in high concentrations. Already, mining companies are prospecting the abyssal plains of the oceans for polymetallic nodules, potato-like lumps that are rich in manganese, copper, cobalt, nickel and rare earths. Seamounts and hydrothermal vents are being explored for metals as well. Is deep-sea mining the cleaner alternative for mining on land? It is too early to tell. We know too little about the impacts of mining on marine biodiversity and the ocean carbon sink. For instance, sponges and other deep-sea wildlife depend on the polymetallic nodules, which take millions of years to grow back. Mining the ocean floor might wipe out entire species before we have even discovered them. Marine sediments are the largest pool of carbon storage, which we must not tamper with lightly. (1)
The ongoing research into the ecological effects of deep-sea mining will gradually teach us the extent of the damage and whether ecosystems can recover from it. (2) For the moment, the European Parliament and the European Commission are wisely advocating a moratorium on deep-sea mining. (3) They might not find enough support for such a precautionary approach within the International Seabed Authority (ISA). This intergovernmental organisation controls the ocean floor beyond national jurisdiction – a third of the Earth’s surface. ISA is under pressure from the mining industry to finalise its Mining Code and give the go-ahead for deep-sea mining on a commercial scale. (4) This makes it all the more important to drive forward the negotiations on a global treaty to protect marine biodiversity in the high seas. Marine-protected areas, off-limits to industrial fishing and mining, should cover at least 30 per cent of the oceans by 2030. (5)