Deep Sea Mining: A Sustainability Paradox

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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.

Deep Sea Mining: A Sustainability Paradox
NRCan, 2023

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.

References

ClientEarth. (2020). What is a carbon sink? ClientEarth Communications. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.clientearth.org/latest/latest-updates/stories/what-is-a-carbon-sink. 

Fava, M. (2022, June 9). How much of the ocean have we explored to date. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from https://oceanliteracy.unesco.org/ocean-exploration. 

Gillespie, A. (2021, September 3). Your next car may be built with Ocean Rocks. scientists can’t agree if that’s good. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.npr.org/2021/09/03/1031434711/your-next-car-may-be-built-with-ocean-rocks-scientists-cant-agree-if-thats-goodv 

IEA. (2022). Electric vehicles. International Energy Agency. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from https://www.iea.org/reports/electric-vehicles 

Jay, J., Soderstrom, S., & Grant, G. (2017). Navigating the paradoxes of Sustainability. Oxford Handbooks Online. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198754428.013.18 

Lovins, A. (2022, May 5). Reality check: Greener, friendlier alternatives exist for rare minerals in batteries. RMI. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from https://rmi.org/rmi-reality-check-greener-friendlier-alternatives-exist-for-rare-minerals-in-batteries/ 

NOAA. (2021). What’s In a Nodule? What’s In a Nodule?: 2021 North Atlantic Stepping Stones: New England and Corner Rise Seamounts: NOAA Ocean Exploration. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/okeanos/explorations/ex2104/features/nodule/welcome.html 

NRCan. (2023, February 15). Government of Canada. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.canada.ca/en/campaign/critical-minerals-in-canada/canadian-critical-minerals-strategy.html UN Environment Programme. (n.d.). Why do oceans and seas matter? United Nations. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.unep.org/explore-topics/oceans-seas/why-do-oceans-and-seas-matter.

About Post Author

Banushan Vipulan

Banushan graduated from the University of Waterloo in 2022 with an Honours Bachelors degree in Geography and Environmental Management, specializing in Climate Change. He is currently pursuing a Masters in Climate Change, also at the University of Waterloo, to further explore sustainable solutions to climate change and related issues. With Banushan's professional background in urban forestry, geographic information systems, and environmental education, he continues to pursue new opportunities to empower communities and drive meaningful change.
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