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The writer is author of ‘The Blue Commons: Rescuing the Economy of the Sea’
The demand for minerals needed for a green technological revolution raises the spectre of a wild west-style frenzy of deep-sea resource extraction and accelerated environmental decay.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) agreed in 1982, mining in the deep sea outside special “exclusive economic zones” has been restricted.
But there was a catch. A provision of Unclos stated that if a country party to the convention, and collaborating with a mining corporation, applied to start deep sea mining, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which was set up in 1994, had two years to finalise regulations or mining could commence. In June 2021, Nauru and The Metals Company applied. So, in July 2023, absent an agreement on regulations, applications could start.
Some alarmed governments, led by Spain, Germany, France, Ireland and Sweden, have demanded a precautionary pause or, in the case of France, a ban, citing the potential ecological damage. However, a powerful pro-mining lobby argues that deep-sea resource extraction is necessary for the “green transition” and that since there are insufficient minerals on land, seabed mining is inevitable.
If deep-sea mining does take off, one concern is that it will reduce the sea’s ability to act as a carbon sink, vital in combating global warming. Furthermore, recent research has shown that in some cases the polymetallic black potato-sized nodules sitting on the seabed thousands of metres below the surface are highly radioactive. Bringing millions of tons of the nodules up could harm human health.
Considerable attention has been paid in the media recently to the environmental issues raised by deep-sea mining, but there is one aspect that has been largely ignored: geopolitics.
Unclos was initially motivated by geopolitical concerns. The motivations were, first, a need to prevent great power conflict over the oceans’ resources and, second, to make sure that everything in the ocean was treated as “the common heritage of mankind”.
The eventual 1982 agreement was one in which different groups of countries gained something and in return made concessions. What the advocates of deep sea mining now are saying, without acknowledging that, is that the rich countries should not honour the one major concession they made in return for major concessions made by developing countries, in particular. This would be profoundly unfair and regressive.
Under the terms of Unclos, all coastal countries acquired national ownership of up to 200 nautical miles from their shores, as exclusive economic zones, amounting to a giant enclosure of 138mn square kilometres.
In return, the deep sea “area”, covering 54 per cent of the world’s oceans, was reserved as the “common heritage of mankind”. Developing countries, including the 36 landlocked countries that are among the poorest in the world, agreed to Unclos on the basis of an assurance that if any resource extraction took place in the deep sea, the benefits would be shared on an equitable basis. The rich countries have had over 40 years of gain from the developing country concessions and now plans are afoot to deny them their side of the complicated bargain. This is amoral.
The ISA was established to produce not just a mining code that respects the precautionary principle of doing minimal environmental damage, but also a formula for equitable sharing. No such formula has been produced and there is little prospect that one will be developed which respects the spirit or letter of international law.
As a result, there is a distinct risk that we could see what would amount to the biggest resource grab in history. Alongside that is the risk of a new geopolitical power struggle, this time between China and a few other countries with mining ambitions. So far, 31 exploration licences have been issued by the ISA, with China having the most.
There is an irony in this. Back in 1982, China led the G77 group of developing countries in demanding that the benefits of mining be shared among all countries. Today, while a large group of African countries has been lobbying for a 45 per cent tax on all profits from the extraction of minerals from the blue commons, China has led the opposition.
The US has raised the alarm at the very real prospect that China will extend its control of global mining. Its concern is justified, but America is also partly to blame, since it is has resolutely refused to ratify the UN convention.
Only a handful of European countries have called for a moratorium on deep sea mining, and even they have just emphasised the ecological concerns. They must not neglect the commons principle and the distributional imperatives. These are vital.