Featured Image Source: NOAA, 2021
The ocean plays a central role in preserving the Earth’s ecosystems. This is not surprising to hear as the ocean makes up over 70% of the planet’s surface. Despite its dominant role in the planet’s many physical processes, as well as our dependence on its abundant resources, the vast majority of the ocean remains a mystery. In fact, 95% of the ocean has yet to be explored.
The Pacific seabed is an area of the ocean that has been studied for decades and has drawn attention worldwide. Governments and industries have set their eyes on the ocean’s rich supply of copper, nickel, manganese and cobalt, which we use daily.
The Sustainability Paradox
“Critical metals” are used in endless products from household supplies like paint and computers to aircraft engines and petroleum. One rising industry in particular has prompted conversations and debates around the world about the extraction of these metals. The rise in electric vehicles (EVs) and efforts to electrify the transportation industry will significantly increase the demand for batteries to support this growth. These metals, specifically nickel and cobalt, are key materials used to manufacture EV batteries.
Experts call this a “sustainability paradox”. Decarbonizing transportation is critical in the fight against climate change, however, mining for metals is imperative to meet global demands for electric vehicles. In an attempt to halt anthropological climate change, other environmental impacts will inadvertently be experienced through the extraction of these metals.
Rising Need for Deep Sea Mining
Metals for batteries can be extracted from the land, ocean, or through recycling. Recycling is a viable clean solution that promotes a circular economy. However, the demand for critical metals cannot be met through just recycling methods.
Deep sea mining can allow us to tap into the ocean’s rich mineral deposits. Industries argue that deep sea mining is a safer and more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional mining on land. Additionally, only a few governments have economically benefited from the mining industry as the majority of production of rare-earth elements has been limited to a handful of countries. Deep sea mining provides new economic opportunities to other nations, especially developing Pacific Island nations.
Unfortunately, the truth is we do not know what the environmental impacts of deep sea mining will be. Despite industry claims that this process is more environmentally friendly, the consequences of deep sea mining are unknown. Humans have explored a small fraction of the ocean and have very limited understanding of its processes, especially near the ocean bed. Although our understanding is limited, there is widescale scientific consensus that metals in the deep sea cannot be extracted without disturbing its rich ecosystems and life underwater, let alone the integrity of the world’s largest carbon sink.
Where do we go from here?
The EV industry has seen tremendous growth and it will need to continue growing even faster. As nations have already begun planning and implementing deep sea mining strategies, we need to reduce the demand for nickel, cobalt and other metals. We have already seen the introduction of battery alternatives and energy efficiency technologies, as well as policy initiatives, such as the United States’ plan to phase out cobalt in batteries by 2030. Together, these solutions can drive the change we need to achieve a truly sustainable future.
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