If the UK wants to be a climate world leader, we must say no to deep-sea mining
4 min read
The development of new technologies are opening up the possibility of mining previously inaccessible ocean depths, causing vastly more damage.
In the House of Lords, I often speak on scientific topics. Yet there's very few people in the House from scientific backgrounds, and what science people know was often learnt a long time ago. I often get responses along the lines of, "well that wasn't what I was taught".
That highlights the most crucial failure of what most people were taught about science: how little we understand about how the world works, and how often dominant hypotheses in science change.
That’s true about our understanding of soils, now understood as hugely complex biological systems. It's true about genetics: horizontal gene transfer is a major force in species change. And the ocean floor is not, in its crushing pressures, deep cold and occasional hotspots, a dark desert, but rather is bursting with varying, amazing, little understood or even identified life.
It was only in 1977 that the life around deep-sea vents - where super-heated water emerges from cracks in the thin ocean crust - was discovered. The average member of the House of Lords was 26 years old then!
Our knowledge and understanding is still little advanced. No wonder, since Helen Scales has calculated each of the world's 500 specialist deep sea marine biologists has 2 million cubic kilometres of ocean to cover. In 2019, a three-year study of the deep Pacific, covering an area larger than California, photographed 347,000 animals, and only one in five of them was known to science. A cautious estimate suggests there may be 10 million species down there.
The deep ocean's biodiversity is invaluable, developed over aeons that we must not destroy, as we’ve trashed our lands’ biodiversity and climate
What we have learnt already is amazing - as befits the unknown region of the Earth on which life very likely began. Also, in 2019, amphipods - scavenging crustaceans that live at the depths of the Mariana Trench, the deepest, most pressured environment on Earth, were found to survive by coating themselves in aluminium gel, consumed from the mud, to prevent their calcium carbonate shells from dissolving.
These are recent discoveries, and there's so much more to know. Yet there's one thing we can be certain about, whatever the area of biology you're looking at: wonders, beauties, and knowledge that has the potential to transform how we understand with and interact with the world is in grave danger.
The deep sea is no different. We've already caused enormous damage through whaling - a giant transfer of energy from sea to land. The carcasses that would have once stored carbon and have fed the creatures of the deep taken out of the system from which they grew, while crucial fertilisation of phytoplankton – as whales brought resources from the deep to the surface – was cut off.
More recently, deep-sea fisheries have caused more disastrous damage. Particularly those destroying global populations of the fish renamed - for consumer attraction - the orange roughy. Human plates held - and still hold - fish decades older than those consuming them. During their catching, coral that can be thousands of years old was destroyed.
But we're now, potentially, on the cusp of causing vastly more. The development of new technologies are opening up the possibility of mining the previously inaccessible ocean depths, those rich stores of biodiversity of which we know so little.
That could happen as soon as July 2023, with the fragile, poor island state of Nauru, set to use a legal mechanism to force the International Seabed Authority to approve a nodule mine, to operate under whatever environmental regulations then apply. Currently there are none, and there are unlikely to be any in 22 months' time.
Already three firms, US arms company Lockheed Martin, Belgian firm DEME and Canadian Deep Green, rebranded The Metals Company, effectively control half a million square kilometres of the Pacific with exploration contracts. The UK government has allocated huge concessions of highly questionable legality.
That's why, today, I'll be asking an oral question on the issue of deep sea mining. It will be a chance for the government to set out its stall, state where it stands. If it wants to be environmentally "world-leading", as we hear so often from ministers, then it is clear what it should say: no to deep-sea mining (as the European Parliament already has).
Civil society is campaigning hard for at least a moratorium. The government should listen to their calls. And more, it needs to work to conclude negotiations for a Global Ocean Treaty as soon as possible, to offer permanent protection.
The deep ocean's biodiversity is invaluable - a treasure developed over aeons that we must not destroy, as we’ve trashed our lands’ biodiversity and climate.
Baroness Bennett is a Green Party peer.
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