As more and more households and businesses and governments plan their switch to electric vehicles, considering the ripple effects is as important now as it was in the age of fossil-fueled vehicles:
The electric vehicle boom is driving a surge in demand for prized metals needed for batteries and other components. Some companies say the solution lies in mining the deep oceans, but scientists say that could irreversibly damage a vast, largely pristine ecosystem.
Nauru, lying about halfway across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean between Australia and Hawaii, is the world’s smallest island nation. But in the emerging industry of deep-sea mining, it punches far above its weight.
This June, Nauru gave notice to the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN agency charged with regulating mining in international waters, that it was triggering the so-called two-year rule: The agency will have to consider any application for a deep-sea mining license two years from now, under whatever regulations are on the books at the time. This effectively forces the ISA’s hand to finalize a regulatory mining code before that deadline. With this latest development, a once-fanciful idea may soon become a global industry.
Ironically, while critics worry about deep-sea mining’s environmental impacts, proponents are offering up the urgency of climate change and the need to transition to a clean-energy economy as the reason to press ahead.
What Nauru is hoping to pull from the depths are potato-sized chunks of metals and minerals called polymetallic nodules, which contain elements vital to the clean-technology components needed for the transition away from fossil fuels, particularly lithium-ion batteries, but also solar panels and wind turbines.
The lumps are formed when something — like a shark’s tooth, perhaps — falls to the ocean floor, and minerals and metals build up slowly on its surface over millions of years. These nodules dot the ocean bottom around the world, but they are most plentiful in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a 1.7 million-square-mile expanse of international waters in the Pacific Ocean. The lumps mainly contain manganese and iron, but also cobalt, nickel, copper, and traces of rare earth elements.
Demand for these metals is soaring. In a report published earlier this year, the International Energy Agency found that achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 would require six times more of certain minerals by 2040 than are being mined today. Deep-sea speculators say that ocean-floor nodules are a critical part of filling this need, with estimates that they may hold six times as much cobalt and triple the amount of nickel as there is on land — and at a higher grade. Mining nodules, they say, will help the world to shift away from the biodiversity loss, toxic pollution, and exploitive labor practices that often come with terrestrial mining.
But critics say that harvesting these nodules could put one of the world’s last pristine ecosystems at risk of irreversible damage, affect whale and tuna migration, extinguish newly discovered species, and even accelerate climate change by kicking up long-undisturbed carbon stores. They caution that two years is not nearly enough time to understand the impacts that decades of mining, spread over hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean, would have. A handful of companies are also pushing for caution: The auto manufacturers BMW and Volvo have said they will not source minerals mined from the ocean for now, and they have encouraged a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
“Going into a new habitat to potentially destroy it and reap the metals that [supposedly] will be used to move us away from climate change … well, we’re destroying one habitat to save another and not fixing the problem,” said Diva Amon, a deep ocean biologist from Trinidad and executive at the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative…
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