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Troubled waters

19 November, 2021

Rarely do we concern ourselves with deep sea mining practices. And that’s a problem.

Deep sea mining is exactly what is sounds like: mining for rare and precious minerals under 3 or 4 kilometres of water. The ocean floor is rich in materials such as manganese, copper and nickel: important ingredients to power the low carbon transition to electric vehicles and energy generation equipment. Some argue that mining these minerals now should be an urgent priority to cool our rapidly warming planet. But others – including David Attenborough – have highlighted the dangers of destroying the largest ecosystem on the planet before we have had the time to understand it.

Time to decide is short. The small nation state of Nauru has notified the international maritime authorities of its intent to start deep sea mining and mining companies like the UK subsidiary of Lockheed Martin are seeking (and getting) support for ‘exploratory missions’ from the government. With the clock ticking, it can feel like an impossible choice. Carbon reduction or nature preservation? Act fast, or consider the risks and lose precious time?

But even in a state of emergency, we should be wary of false dichotomies. For one thing, the ocean itself plays a critical role in carbon sequestration: churning up its floor may well have disastrous impacts for carbon emissions as well as biodiversity. For another, WWF has challenged the idea that we need new minerals to fuel the net zero transition, arguing that a combination of innovation, recycling and repair can satisfy the need without the need for mining. And even those who need the metals seem to agree, with companies such as BMW, Samsung, Google and Volvo joining the call for a moratorium on deep sea mining.

The dual crises of climate and biodiversity don’t supply easy answers. But defaulting to overly simplified binaries, without exploring all the options available, could leave us in too deep.

By Marie Guérinet

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