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Dozens of British scientists have urged prime minister Rishi Sunak to back a “moratorium” on deep-sea mining over concerns about the nascent industry’s environmental impact.
In a letter signed by 60 researchers, they have warned the UK government that pressing ahead with the industrial-scale exploitation of the seafloor could have grave consequences for both marine life and the ability of the oceans — one of the planet’s biggest carbon sinks — to absorb carbon dioxide.
Growing misgivings about the effect of metal extraction on the seabed at a meeting in July of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which regulates seafloor extraction, blocked large-scale extraction going ahead until a later date.
Brazil, France Germany and Sweden are among more than 20 countries to have called for a pause to deep-sea mining at least until the environmental effects of seabed exploitation are better understood.
The British government, which holds two exploration licences to extract key battery metals, such as copper and cobalt, from the Pacific, has stopped short of calling for a pause. However, it has previously said it would not proceed until the ISA has put in place a regulatory regime.
The letter from the scientists seen by the FT called on Sunak to add his “support to the growing global movement for a moratorium” on deep-sea mining. It highlighted the findings of several international studies warning of “potentially severe and irreversible adverse impacts to the marine environment, its biodiversity, and ecosystems.”
Disturbing the seabed could lead to the release of carbon locked up in sediment “negating millions of years of ecological and biochemical processes in just a few years,” the letter continued.
Murray Roberts, a professor of applied marine biology at the University of Edinburgh and one of the signatories, said mining the seafloor could “radically change” ancient ecosystems that flourish up to 6,000 metres deep, as well as the fauna and flora that live in shallower waters above mining sites.
“This is an area that has never experienced human contact. This is the last thing we ought to be thinking about doing right now,” he added.
Andrew Sweetman, a scientist who collaborates with the mining industry and leads the seafloor ecology and biogeochemistry research group at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, said the call for a moratorium was “counter-productive” as it could threaten industry funding “to collect data on poorly understood ecosystems.”
He argued that extracting metals needed for batteries from the seafloor in a responsible way could help slow the effects of climate change. “How will we explain to our kids that we didn’t go into certain parts of the deep sea to mine because we were worried about the biodiversity loss . . . but all that biodiversity was lost [anyway] as a result of warming oceans and declining oxygen levels?”
Walter Sognnes, chief executive of Loke Marine Minerals, a Norwegian deep sea mining company that is the government’s contractor on its Pacific licences, said: “You shouldn’t stop us before you give us a fair chance to see if we can make this a viable industry.”
The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Additional reporting by Harry Dempsey