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S&T&I for 2050: deep-sea mining and ecosystem performance

Author

Susanna Bottaro

Oct 6, 2022

There are an estimated billions of tonnes of strategic minerals such as nickel, cobalt and copper, lying on the ocean’s floor. Technological advance, financial viability, and regulatory frameworks are slowly aligning to permit deep-sea mining (DSM). While many rejoice in these developments, a variety of actors are calling for a moratorium on the nascent industry. Most notably, the European Commission released a Joint Communication stating that not enough knowledge about the risks of DSM is available and that more research is to be conducted to make DSM sustainable[i]. With deep-sea mining closer than ever to becoming a reality on the one hand, and calls for a moratorium on the other hand, it is important to discuss future directions of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) for a flourishing deep-sea ecosystem.



The way in which we view the world and how we conceptualise nature shape our attitude towards it and the type of STI to be desired and pursued. The project “S&T&I for 2050” provides a framework to imagine different sustainable futures depending on underlying values and human-nature relations. Three perspectives on ecosystem performance are described:

  1. “Protecting and restoring ecosystems”, concerned with preservation of ecosystems by managing the impact from human activities;

  2. “Co-shaping socio-ecological systems”, concerned with simultaneous development of social practices and ecological processes towards resilience and sustainability renewal;

  3. “Caring within hybrid collectives”, concerned with the establishment of caring relationships in new local collectives with humans and other entities on an equal footing.

These three perspectives offer different views on notions of the deep sea and how and why we should promote its flourishing, and therefore delineate different views on deep-sea mining. The first perspective, i.e. protecting and restoring, views the deep sea as natural capital, a sphere that is separated from that of humans. The ecosystem is valued according to cost and benefit analysis (CBA), often based on ecosystem service. DSM would thus proceed when consistent with the findings of CBA and would need to limit as much as possible the effects on the environment. The second perspective, i.e. co-shaping, views the deep sea as a complex and unstable ecosystem that is co-shaped by both humans and non-human deep-sea entities. Ecosystems must flourish to allow for our long-term survival. Finding a governance system that is beneficial for all human and non-human entities part of the socio-ecological system is thus the proposed attitude towards assuring a healthy deep sea. The third perspective, i.e. immersing and caring, does not see a difference between humans and nature, thus also the deep sea. These two elements are one and the same, making humans deeply connected with a pluriverse of other beings. Caring for the deep sea and its health is not a choice, and deep-sea mining can only result from a negotiation between creatures to allow all to flourish on their own terms.


Stemming from these perspectives on deep-sea performance, I sketched three 2050 scenarios on the future of deep-sea mining focused on ecosystem performance.


P1 scenario: The masters of the deep sea

Deep-sea mining is an established industry. A plethora of norms, tribunals and enforcement bodies assure that all contractors operating in national and international waters follow protocols and respect the boundaries and marine protected areas (MPAs). The deep sea has been carefully mapped via satellite imagery and all mineral deposits, before being approved for exploitation, have been studied in all their biological and chemical characteristics. Each operation in international water is to be approved behind closed doors by a board of experts selected by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), of which all countries are member. Meticulous risk assessments and environmental impact assessments are conducted to measure whether the extraction of minerals from a determined area makes economic sense against the loss of other ecosystem services. The “do no significant harm” principle (DNSH) is adopted as a default in deep-sea mining policymaking. The ISA also has the power to set caps to the quantity of minerals extracted each year depending on the indicators of stressors on the deep-sea ecosystem. It has happened in the past that restrictive caps resulted in fierce legal battles between investors and the ISA in a process alike that of the ISDS. Mining operations are required to adopt advanced technologies built on deep-sea robotics and AI to limit their impact in the extraction of minerals. When in 2032 a DSM operation caused a large-scale biodiversity loss that impacted numerous fisheries in the Pacific, controlling or eliminating the plumes of sediment became a priority of new technologies. Sensors are placed all throughout the deep sea to continuously monitor the temperature, the toxicity and water movements.


P2 scenario: Embracing deep uncertainty

Deep-sea mining has been practiced for 15 years now. The global moratorium put in place in 2025 allowed the international system to adapt and create a suitable regulatory framework to govern deep-sea mining effectively. Uncertainty in conducting mining operations in the deep sea was accepted and embedded in a highly responsive and adaptive governance structure. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) was joined by a multitude of organisations, such as the Deep Ocean Protection Authority (DOPA), the DSM States Consortium, and Atlantic Fisheries Agency (AFA), in order to assure as much as possible a governance of a global common in the name of resilience of the ecosystem. The precautionary principle is a prerogative for all decisions regarding deep-sea mining activities so that long term flourishing is possible. Feedback loops in this structure have allowed prevention of significant strains on the deep-sea ecosystem and quick interdisciplinary response to rebalance the ecosystem. For this aim, data from indicator species and sensors placed not only in the deep-sea, but also in shallow waters, on coastal land, and in the atmosphere is collected in a central and open-access database and analysed by personnel with the help of AI technologies. Socio-economic factors, such as the high demand of a specific mineral on the market, are also factored in to predict and manage changes in the extraction pace and protection activities. The ISA has remained the main organisation controlling deep-sea mining activities on the seabed beyond national jurisdiction and has undergone deep change in its internal norms allowing for a pervasive transparency and increased flexibility in its activities and regulations. While on the one hand this increased the resilience of the system, financial viability of DSM suffered also due to the volatility of the DSM metals market. In any case, technological developments on land, particularly recycling, and societal change towards circular economies have determined a diminishing need of raw materials, thus alleviating the push for deep sea extraction. Operations in the deep sea are conducted using biomimetic technologies developed by marine engineers in collaboration with biologists to be unintrusive to deep-sea fauna.


P3 perspective: Deep-sea connections

Deep-sea mining is now old memory. The fermentation around the industry died even before a commercial operation happened in international water. Although it seemed that an energy transition might have been impossible without DSM, the major improvements in recycling and the decoupling of the economy rendered the practice futile. All this was accompanied by a paradigmatic shift in our relationship with Nature. Past extractive industries are unthinkable now due to the enormous harm that they bring to Planet Earth as a whole. Oceans and the deep sea are as close to humans’ conscience and care as the soil on which they walk. Still, when new materials are needed, humans can dive to the deep sea and communicate with its inhabitants to determine together which polymetallic nodule or how much softer sulphide deposit can be harvested. This was enabled by technological breakthroughs in diving equipment and symbiotic robotics amongst others. Knowledge is pursued not with the aim to manage the deep sea but to enhance the whole ecosystem capacity to sustain thriving life and interspecies collaboration. Extensive scientific knowledge of the deep sea and its biogeochemical characteristics is complemented by both human and other creatures’ indigenous knowledge. Cobalt-rich crusts are not mined because the technology currently available would be too invasive and destructive. Nevertheless, as the water levigates the rock and particles of metals are dispersed in the water, some people filter out the water and collect these. The deep sea belongs to no one and every living creature simultaneously – its flourishing cannot be separated from that of all other creatures, including humans.


These three scenarios offer a peek into how different views of the world might impact deep-sea mining and Science, Technology, and Innovation directions related to a sustainable deep-sea. There are plenty of questions that the scenarios create and leave unanswered and plenty of open points that will be decided upon in the next years. Many of them are related to STI, including governance innovations, and many others engage with the complex geopolitical arena surrounding deep-sea mining.


Will we create technologies to source deep-sea minerals sustainably? How will sustainability be conceptualised for the deep sea? How will developments in AI, big data and robotics impact the deep-sea mining industry? Which governance structure could effectively control extraction of minerals from the deep-sea? Can deep-sea minerals ever be recovered without harming deep-sea life? How will the rising attention to global commons impact activities in the deep sea? Will the DSM international challenge strengthen multilateralism or further break it down? Will deep-sea minerals be part of green transitions? Will the European Union prioritise assuring strategic material flows over environmental protection, or will such a trade-off not be required? How will trade-offs between ecological harm and ecological benefits be addressed? How would commercial DSM impact global trade flows and how would power relations and geopolitical strategies change? What will be the social consequences on land mines areas? Which countries will be the losers and winners at the prospect of DSM? Will deep-sea mining become an environmental taboo, similarly to nuclear energy? What knowledge will the EU require to approve deep-sea mining?


What is deep-sea mining and why are its minerals strategic?

Deep-sea mining, defined as the extraction of minerals at depths beyond 200m, revolves around three types of deposit, each containing different metals in nature and quantity. Polymetallic nodules, small rocks at depths of 4000-6000m, contain mainly manganese, copper and nickel. Ferromanganese crusts, the top layer of some undersea mountains and ridges at depths of 800-2500m, contain mainly manganese, cobalt and nickel. Seafloor massive sulphides, deposits from hydrothermal vents activity at depths of 1000-3500m, contain mainly copper, gold and silver[i]. To give an idea of the deep-sea mineral quantities, it has been estimated that there are approximately 1 billion tonnes of cobalt on the ocean floor[ii]. Estimated terrestrial deposits amount to approximately 7.1 million tonnes[iii]. These estimations are not reflected in the work of other researchers (e.g., see image below) indicating considerable uncertainty and knowledges gaps. Other than the mentioned metals, the seabed hosts also sizeable quantities of rare earths (REEs) and lithium, further minerals that are highly relevant for the energy and technological industry. It is not thus a surprise that deep-sea mining proponents continuously highlight the positive impact that the extraction could have in reaching carbon neutrality through batteries and renewable energy infrastructure.


Mineral deposits on the seabed. Source: Heffernan (2019)[iv]

Most of the mineral deposits in the deep sea are placed beyond national jurisdiction. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) was created under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to manage these resources for the benefit of mankind. Currently, 168 countries are members of the ISA.

[i] Sharma, R. (2022). Approach Towards Deep-Sea Mining: Current Status and Future Prospects. In: Sharma, R. (eds) Perspectives on Deep-Sea Mining. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-87982-2_2 [ii] https://www.isa.org.jm/files/documents/EN/Brochures/ENG9.pdf [iii] https://pubs.usgs.gov/periodicals/mcs2021/mcs2021-cobalt.pdf

[iv] Heffernan, O. (2019). Seabed mining is coming—Bringing mineral riches and fears of epic extinctions. Nature, 571(7766), 465–468. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-02242-y


 

[i] Joint Communication on the EU’s International Ocean Governance agenda: https://oceans-and-fisheries.ec.europa.eu/publications/setting-course-sustainable-blue-planet-joint-communication-eus-international-ocean-governance-agenda_en



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