by Karen McVeigh
Britain has announced its backing for a moratorium on commercial deep-sea mining, after criticism from scientists, MPs and environmentalists of its previous stance in support of the emerging industry. Euractiv’s media partner, The Guardian, reports.
On Monday, the UK government said publicly it would back a temporary suspension on supporting or sponsoring any exploitation licences to mine metals from the sea floor until enough scientific evidence was available to understand the impact on ecosystems.
Last month, dozens of scientists warned the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, that allowing industrial-scale exploitation of the seabed could have grave consequences, both for marine life and for the ability of the ocean – one of the planet’s greatest carbon sinks – to absorb carbon dioxide.
Until now the UK has stopped short of backing a moratorium. The change of heart puts it on a growing list of at least 20 countries, including Brazil, France, Germany, Sweden and Canada, calling for a pause on supporting exploration licences, at least until the environmental effects of seabed exploitation are better understood. Even car manufacturers such as BMW and Volvo, and the car battery maker Samsung, have pledged not to use deep-sea minerals in vehicles.
On Monday, the environment secretary, Therese Coffey, said a UK-based environmental science network on deep-sea mining would be launched, to gather data and help fill in gaps in evidence on the environmental impact of mining. It would use its scientific expertise to “fully understand the impact of deep-sea mining on precious ecosystems, and in the meantime we will not support or sponsor any exploitation licences”, Coffey said.
In July, the Labour party urged the government to back the proliferating calls for a precautionary pause on deep-sea mining “unless and until” there was clear scientific evidence that it could be done safely and with new regulations to protect the marine environment.
Monday marks the beginning of fresh negotiations at the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a quasi-UN body charged with regulating the industry in international waters. It met in July but no decision was reached on whether to allow production to go ahead. Member states agreed, however, to discuss a moratorium.
The UK government holds two exploration licences to extract metals from the floor of the Pacific Ocean.
It is among 14 countries sponsoring exploration or research contracts – the only type allowed so far – by companies intent on mining the deep sea. The others are China, Russia, South Korea, India, France, Poland, Brazil, Japan, Jamaica, Belgium, Nauru, Tonga and Kiribati.
Mining companies say that harvesting minerals, including copper, nickel and cobalt, from the ocean instead of land is cheaper and less environmentally damaging.
Scientists and environmental groups counter that less than 1% of the world’s deep seas have been explored, and warn that deep-sea mining could unleash noise, light and suffocating dust storms.
In June, the European Academies Science Advisory Council warned of “dire consequences” for marine ecosystems should deep-sea mining go ahead. Scientists have also expressed concerns about spills of fuels and about other chemicals used in the mining process.
“Deep-sea mining poses an existential threat to some of the most vulnerable, least explored habitats on the planet,” said Clare Brooke, chief executive of the conservation organisation Blue Marine Foundation.
“It is vital that we exercise the precautionary principle and find ways of producing minerals necessary for the transition to net zero so as not to cause catastrophic and permanent destruction of fragile ocean biodiversity.”
Julian Jackson, a specialist in ocean governance at Pew Charitable Trusts, who is in Jamaica for the ISA negotiations, said: “After agreeing the high seas treaty last year and playing a pivotal role in agreeing the ambitious 30?30 targets to protect the marine environment, it’s heartening to see the UK joining the group of countries calling for a moratorium on seabed mining that represents an existential risk to the deep-sea ecosystem.
“However, the risk of unregulated seabed mining remains unaddressed. These champion countries now need to turn these political declarations into a legal reality at the International Seabed Authority.”
Fiona Nicholls, Greenpeace’s UK ocean campaigner, said: “The UK government’s change of heart on deep-sea mining shows the tide is turning against this destructive industry, threatening some of the world’s last undisturbed habitats.”
*first published in: Euractiv.com