Seafloor deposits of cobalt, nickel, lithium and other minerals could soon become commercially available. But environmentalists are concerned about the dangers of deep-sea mining
A novel source of minerals may soon become available to global markets: seafloor deposits of cobalt, nickel, lithium and other minerals. According to a paper published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), resource exploitation industries need new frameworks for governance and these frameworks are taking shape for deep-sea minerals.
In 2021, in fact, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an intergovernmental body based in Kingston, Jamaica, is likely to finalise regulations for the exploitation of deep-sea minerals that can be found there. ISA was established to regulate all mineral-related activities in the International Seabed Area beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, an area underlying most of the world’s oceans. Some countries are developing regulatory frameworks, too, for the exploitation of deep-sea minerals in their coastal exclusive economic zones. It’s likely that, by 2030, these minerals could be inside consumer products and used in industrial processes.
The supply of minerals, including cobalt, is currently a key bottleneck in lithium-ion battery production. This, in turn, constrains the manufacture of electric vehicles and other technologies that aim to aid the global green transition. By increasing the availability of cobalt and other minerals, deep-sea mining has the potential to reduce costs and boost the production of green technologies, helping curb the negative environmental and biodiversity effects of climate change.
Sustainable transportation could enhance economic growth and improve accessibility, as it ranks higher in company agendas. New fuels are needed to comply with limits on sulphur/carbon emissions and reduce GHG emissions. Zero-emission vehicle technologies include plug-in hybrids, liquid nitrogen vehicles, hydrogen vehicles (utilising fuel cells or converted internal combustion engines), and compressed air vehicles typically recharged by slow (home) or fast (road station) electric compressors, flywheel energy storage vehicles and solar-powered cars. Segway personal transporters are 11 times more energy-efficient than the average American car, as they operate on two lithium-ion batteries. Alternative ways of fuelling cars and other transport vehicles can power transport in the future. Electric cars are the most commercially available solution along with thermoelectric technology, which converts heat into electricity, and can help reduce fuel consumption.
New mineral sources can also bring opportunities for manufacturers. BMW, GEM Co, Samsung SDI, SK Innovation and Tesla have signed direct supply deals with the cobalt giant Glencore in recent years, indicating these companies’ increased attention on supply security, as metal demand surges.
However, the special status of minerals from the International Seabed Area, the novel environmental challenges of deep-sea mineral extraction, combined with the world’s pressing need for mineral resources, make the responsible sourcing of deep-sea minerals a complex proposition.
Recent events show an increased risk of stakeholder dissatisfaction when the materials in the supply chains are associated with negative environmental and social issues. The supply of cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo and palm oil from Indonesia and elsewhere serve as good examples of this phenomenon.
Not surprisingly, environmentalists have called for a ban on deep-seabed mining and more than 80 non-governmental organisations have voiced concerns about the dangers of commercial extraction. To enhance learning and discuss and engage on this complex issue, the WEF has launched the Deep-Sea Minerals Dialogue. “Deep-sea mining is a cross-cutting topic that could affect both progress on climate action, as well as the preservation of biodiversity, and is connected with the transition to a circular economy. Stakeholders owe it to themselves and to the planet alike to make the wisest decision possible,” said Dominic Waughray, managing director, World Economic Forum, in a media statement.
The environmental challenges of deep-sea mining must be carefully discussed. The effects on marine life of sediment plumes, anthropogenic light, noise and electromagnetic disturbance from mineral mining are still being researched, and scientists have suggested they could be severe and felt far from mining sites. Organism behaviour, growth, reproduction and mortality could all be negatively impacted. Any extinctions could mean the loss of unique natural wonders, which experts believe could be used to create new antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs and nutritional supplements.
The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, an alliance of over 80 international organisations, has called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until a set of conditions is met, including a comprehensive understanding of deep-sea biodiversity, clear social license and substantive improvements to the institutional governance structures and mechanisms.