Despite our negligible contribution to global emissions, our people are uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Rising seas and more frequent extreme weather have left the future of our blue economies in the balance.
As we celebrate World Ocean Day, we reaffirm our intent to conserve and sustainably use the ocean, while also recognising the part it plays in our future economic viability. As states whose history has been shaped by responsible stewardship of the ocean, seabed mining is a welcome and exciting development.
Polymetallic nodules, found on the ocean floor, can assist with the world’s paramount challenge of transitioning away from fossil fuels, by delivering a timely and effective energy transition that is more environmentally, socially and economically responsible.
Mining on land has in many cases had a devastating environmental impact, and while it is understandable that some will question the impact of seabed mining in the same way, after researching and understanding the facts we now know there are significant differences between the two.
Seabed mining is a far more “greener” option for our region and the world and should be embraced by everyone who cares about the climate future of our planet. It will usher in a new era of metals recycling.
The World Bank recently forecast that demand for the metals underpinning renewable energy and electric vehicles will increase by up to 500 per cent by 2050, warning that current recycling cannot meet this net new demand. So where should these metals come from?
On land, falling ore grades and the need to dig deeper and harder for lower quality ores brings severe environmental, social and economic costs. Polymetallic nodules, on the other hand, sit unattached on the ocean floor and contain nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese; key metals required for our transition to the green economy in quantities and grades long since extinguished on land.
It is appropriate that Pacific small islands, who have always relied on the ocean for resources, now have the opportunity to participate in the deep-sea minerals industry to assist with future economic sustainability.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the ‘constitution for the oceans’, and established the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to administer and manage the deep-sea mineral resources beyond national jurisdiction.
For the first time in history, an extractive industry regime will aim to alleviate some of the economic disparities that exist between the Global North and the Global South. The regime empowers developing states by setting aside exclusive areas for our development and in the future will re-distribute the financial benefits of our common heritage, especially for developing states.
While exercising the precautionary principle, this regime also emphasises marine scientific research, training, technology transfer and capacity building, particularly amongst women. Never before in history has an industry been set up with such forethought to mitigate the imbalances that exist in our world.
We are proud that Pacific nations have been leaders in the deep-sea minerals industry from the start. Nauru was the first developing state to sponsor activity in international waters, followed by the Kingdom of Tonga, Kiribati and the Cook Islands. The Pacific now has the largest group of developing states participating in this collaborative global effort.
We are people of the ocean, and we understand better than most how important it is to use its resources in a responsible way. The ocean has always supported us, and we will not do anything to impact its ability to continue to support our cultures and our Pacific way of life.
The deep-sea minerals industry is currently in the exploration phase. No extraction has occurred, and none will occur until further extensive environmental studies are completed. More area has been set aside for conservation than will be licensed for extraction. The ISA has engaged some of the world’s best deep-sea specialists and oceanographers to contribute to the development of the regulations that contractors must follow.
The ISA requirements are comprehensive and the scope and detail that is required is considered to be far greater than would generally be required by regulators for any land-based mining activity.
Unlike on land, where individual states regulate and manage their resources as they see fit, the ISA and its member states will manage these resources as the ‘Common Heritage of Mankind’, on behalf of everyone on Earth. It is a unique and unparalleled governance structure.
Rising oceans and economic limitations collide across the Pacific. To transition to a carbon-free future, the world requires significant amounts of metals, and we believe that polymetallic nodules are a key part of the solution.
While developed states possess a broad range of climate change mitigation and economic strategies, options for our small island developing states are far narrower, and for our futures to be secure, we once again look to the ocean.
Margo Deiye: Ambassador, Permanent Representative to the Republic of Nauru to the International Seabed Authority
Alex Herman: Cook Islands, Seabed Minerals Commissioner
Taaniela Kula: Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Lands & Natural Resources, Kingdom of Tonga
Photo file SPC