A critical juncture to safeguard the health of the ocean

Brown algae can have a carbon storage function in the deep sea. – by NURC/UNCW and NOAA/FGBNMS

By Simon Holmström

Right now, a battle is raging beneath the still, murky waters, where the sun’s rays never penetrate, and where unique species have evolved for thousands of years. The world stands at a crossroads where the pursuit for critical minerals and metals like lithium, cobalt, and nickel threatens to ignite an entirely new industry in the ocean: deep-sea mining. But this pursuit comes at a steep price: the devastation of the incredible and fragile ecosystems of the deep sea and its ability to mitigate the climate crisis.

The interest to explore the deep sea has long existed, but only now is exploration risking transformation into extraction. The Canada-based company, The Metals Company, plans to apply for deep-sea mining in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean through a loophole in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Simultaneously, the UN-affiliated body with the mandate to manage the international seabed, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), is rushing negotiations on a mining code aiming to be adopted by 2025. Both of these options would give a green light to an entirely new industry, without even having sufficient knowledge about the deep sea ecosystems.

It’s unacceptable to allow such activity to begin without fully understanding its potential consequences. Research indicates huge risks such as loss of species, disruption of ecosystem functions and harm to fish stocks. Moreover, seabed mining can release long stored carbon, exacerbating the climate crisis.

Table summarising European countries’ involvement in and position on deep-sea mining – Seas At Risk

Happily, there is cause for optimism. A recently released report that we at Seas At Risk launched in early May shows that the political stance on deep-sea mining has dramatically shifted within Europe in just three years. The European Commission now backs a ban on deep-sea mining, and 11 European countries have expressed a clear precautionary approach. Globally, 25 countries, and counting, support a ban, moratorium, or precautionary pause on deep-sea mining.

Indeed, pressing pause on deep-sea mining has become a flagship issue and a global priority for a range of organisations and institutions. Alongside opposition from the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, the private sector, scientists, civil society and fishing organisations are calling for a moratorium or precautionary pause on this industry.

With this momentum, there is a good chance of establishing a General Policy for the protection of the marine environment within the ISA that can legally enforce a precautionary pause on deep-sea mining. The issue of such a policy will be discussed for the first time at the ISA Assembly this July-August. It is therefore crucial that as many champion countries as possible are present and actively participate in these critical discussions with consequences for many future generations.

Instead of putting the ocean at huge risk, let us redirect our focus to reducing the demand for metals through efficient use and recycling of these resources. According to expert reports, technological development, behavioral changes, and a circular economy could reduce the demand for critical metals by up to 58% by 2050. This would render deep-sea mining redundant.

The deep sea is not just a place of endless mysteries. It is a living treasure trove of life, a universe of biodiversity, and an invaluable resource for all humanity. Decisions made now about the deep sea can change the ocean forever. We want Europe to be on the right side of history. At this critical juncture countries must step up and publicly voice their support to a General Policy on the protection of the marine environment before it is too late to stop deep-sea mining.

Let’s ensure that our actions today preserve its beauty and richness for generations to come. Let’s stand together to protect the deep sea, our shared heritage, and the heartbeat of our planet.

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Simon Holmström serves as Deep-Sea Mining Policy Officer at the Brussels-based marine protection umbrella organisation Seas At Risk. With a lifelong commitment to environmental activism and an MSc in Environmental Psychology, Simon co-founded a green political party in his home region of the Åland Islands, Finland. As a Member of Parliament and delegate to the Nordic Council, Simon drove multiple proposals on protecting nature and climate for future generations. Simon has also been a proud member of the parliamentary network Ecocide Alliance.

This is a guest blog and may not necessarily represent the views of other RISE UP network members or RISE UP as a whole. It is only through open dialogue and a diversity of ideas that we will arrive at the solutions necessary to restore Ocean health.

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Date Published: 23rd May 2024