Urban Mining — Our Cities Are A Stockpile of Raw Materials

Deep sea mining (DSM) is of growing interest to frontier investors, mining companies and governments. The seabed in international waters represents the common heritage of humankind, however there is little public debate about this emerging industry and its potential to endanger fragile ecosystems and to affect human communities.

The world is yet to experience commercial DSM, but seabed mineral exploration is gathering pace. The International Seabed Authority (ISA)1 has issued 30 licences for exploration in international waters. More than half for polymetallic rocks or nodules in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) - a stretch of ocean between Hawaii and Mexico in the north-eastern equatorial Pacific. Several nations such as Japan, Norway and the Cook Islands aspire to also undertake deep sea mining within their exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

An argument regularly put forward is that DSM is crucial to fill gaps in knowledge about deep sea ecosystems. These gaps are indeed significant. However, there is concern that deep sea mining companies with commercial production as their priority are unlikely to fill them.

Over the past decades, many independent deep sea scientific research projects have been initiated for a range of habitats. The Deep Sea Mining Campaign and MiningWatch Canada commissioned a review of the existing body of information to better understand the risks deep sea nodule mining would present to habitats, species, ecosystems and the people who rely on them.2 The report examined over 250 peer reviewed articles and other literature. The scientific consensus summarized indicates that the impacts of mining deep sea polymetallic nodules would be extensive, severe, and last for generations, causing essentially irreversible species loss and ecosystem degradation.

Furthermore, the report identified a comprehensive list of research gaps relating to complex processes such as cumulative and trans-jurisdictional impacts and vertical and horizontal linkages between deep, mid and shallow waters: in particular linkages at the level of species, chemistry, physical oceanography.

To date, these aspects have not been the research focus of deep-sea mining companies. But it is precisely these knowledge gaps that are critical to understanding the scale and breadth of the risks associated with deep sea mining.

Scientists already conclude that remediation of the physical impacts of nodule mining and subsequent biodiversity loss is unrealistic, with costs projected to be 100 to 1,000 times higher than the remediation of mine sites on land.

In the face of such findings, the call to hit the pause button on DSM is growing. Civil society, governments and scientists question the need to mine the seabed to provide the metals required to transition to a Carbon emissions free economy – the argument most commonly put forward by companies in support of DSM.

Research suggests that a transition towards a 100 per cent renewable energy supply can take place without deep-sea mining. Furthermore, a recent report by WWF observes that DSM is likely to undermine the recycling and production innovations required for clean-energy transitions.3

It is no real surprise that UNEP’s practical guidance for finance institutions on sustainable ocean finance, released in March this year, excludes deep-sea mining as a sustainable investment option.

The real solution to our climate crisis requires economic structural adjustments away from growth in resource extraction and towards reducing resource consumption, manufacturing goods using circular economy design principles and sourcing minerals from a relatively small number of well managed land-based mines the urban mining of existing waste.  Taxing yet another and barely known ecosystem is not a pathway to planetary sustainability – especially for an ocean already under stress.

Urban mining enterprises are on the cusp of commercialization with simple, low-cost, low-risk technologies, flexible scales for diverse locations, and win-win social and environmental outcomes. The scope to produce metals in this manner is immense and recession proof – not only from the huge global stockpiles of electronic wastes but also from existing mine tailings wastes.

Governments and investors have an opportunity to support the operationalization of such innovative approaches and to secure socially and environmentally sustainable sources of metals for a clean energy future.

By Helen Rosenbaum

Dr Helen Rosenbaum is the Campaign Coordinator for the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, and has over 20 years of experience in community development, research and policy analysis, human rights and environmental advocacy.

The Deep Sea Mining Campaign is an association of NGOs and citizens concerned about the likely impacts of DSM on marine and coastal ecosystems and communities. The DSM Campaign collaborates across the Pacific Islands, Australia, Canada, the USA and Europe. Its comprehensive science based reports that can be accessed here.

the multilateral agency set up under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seato manage deep sea mineral resources in the area beyond national jurisdiction
Chin, A and Hari, K (2020), Predicting the impacts of mining deep sea polymetallic nodules in the Pacific Ocean: A review of Scientific literature, Deep Sea Mining Campaign and MiningWatch Canada, 52 pages

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