The latest International Seabed Authority (ISA) meeting did not allow for the controversial practice of deep-sea mining, although it has not been banned yet.
- Although the mining code was successfully blocked for now, companies could still begin mining in 2024, as currently there are no rules regulating commercial deep-sea mining in international waters.
- There are concerns that allowing the practice would cause irreversible damage to marine biodiversity.
- The fact that more countries are expressing their dissent is an encouraging sign that next year’s negotiations could result in a moratorium.
The second part of the 28th Annual Session of the ISA concluded on 28 July 2023, in Kingston, Jamaica, following four weeks of intense discussions on deep-sea mining.
What did the meeting conclude?
Companies and countries pushing for the approval of the practice failed to secure an immediate green light. The number of countries opposing deep-sea mining reached 21 – the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Palau, Samoa have formed a moratorium alliance, France is calling for an outright ban, while others are backing a precautionary pause, such as Brazil, Costa Rica, and Chile.
Conversely, the ISA Secretary General, Michael Lodge, and countries such as Mexico, Nauru, Norway and the UK, pushed for the fast-tracked adoption of regulations that would allow mining to begin. Efforts to get a discussion on a precautionary pause on deep-sea mining on the ISA agenda – submitted by Chile, Costa Rica, France, Palau and Vanuatu – were blocked by China on procedural grounds and will have to wait until next year’s Assembly for discussion.
According to Seas At Risk, an association of environmental organisations from across Europe, the deadlock “illustrates the institutional weaknesses of the ISA, which will face a governance review during the 2024 Assembly”.
“Debates were also hampered by the imposition of closed-door meetings, new restrictions for media and civil society organisations and increasing concerns of corporate influence over the Secretariat,” it added.
Charity Environmental Justice Foundation noted that, even though the negotiations failed to reach a moratorium, they are “far from being a failure” but “a strong signal of growing opposition to deep-sea mining and a significant setback for the highly speculative industry”.
What will happen next?
The discussions came after the island state of Nauru triggered a special provision in international law, the so-called ‘two-year rule’, in 2021. This gave the 168 ISA member states and the EU only 24 months to develop and adopt regulations on deep-sea exploitation before funding applications could be submitted – with or without a framework.
Although the mining code was successfully blocked for now, the ISA Secretariat put forward a roadmap to have exploitation regulations adopted by the end of 2025, effectively opening up the seabed to mining activities. This means that companies could still begin mining in 2024, as currently there are no rules regulating commercial deep-sea mining in international waters.
As of July 2023, mining applications can now be submitted to the ISA. This means unregulated deep-sea mining is theoretically possible, although many states reject an introduction at the present time.
“Investors looking at what happened in the past week will only see a desperate industry trying to maintain the illusion it has any future,” said Greenpeace International Oceans campaigner Louisa Casson.
“If deep sea mining was truly as sustainable as miners claim and their hearts were truly invested in helping the climate crisis, why block dissent? It’s become clear during these weeks that irresponsibly pressing ahead to mine the deep sea in the middle of a climate crisis is not only reckless but politically toxic. The world is fighting back against deep sea mining – there’s a big fight ahead, but the fight is on.”
What’s wrong with deep-sea mining?
The practice has been vehemently opposed due to its potential impacts on biodiversity – which are challenging to quantify, as marine ecosystems are poorly understood, and more than 75% of the global seafloor has not been mapped or observed. According to Planet Tracker, trying to restore the permanent damage to biodiversity caused by deep sea mining would cost so much that no one could afford to pay for it.
Mining in these vulnerable ecosystems would create disruption, scare away animals and potentially release toxic chemicals that may be absorbed into food chains. This would have disastrous human consequences, particularly for coastal communities.
Conversely, its supporters want to tap the oceans’ resources to source those minerals needed for the energy transition, such as nickel, manganese, cobalt, or copper.
Raising awareness on the issue has led to calls from all over the world –
Although there is no firm decision yet, the fact that more countries are expressing their dissent is an encouraging sign that next year’s negotiations could result in a moratorium. After the Global Biodiversity Framework was agreed upon at COP15 in December 2022, allowing deep-sea mining would signal a complete disregard of global commitments to preserve nature.