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Deep-sea mining ban draws closer despite China’s opposition

While China blocked a ban from this year’s seabed talks agenda, hopes are now high that it will be officially discussed next year

A halt on companies digging up the deep seabed for valuable metals is now a real possibility after governments agreed to put it on the agenda for international talks this time next year.

It’s the first time this proposal will be formally discussed at a UN international body.

For the past three weeks, governments gathered in Kingston, Jamaica, at a little-known UN agency called the International Seabed Authority (ISA), to discuss a moratorium on mining on the deep seabed in international waters. No companies are currently carrying out such projects yet.

A coalition of nations pushed for a ban to be placed on the agenda but were opposed by Mexico, Nauru and most persistently by China. Towards the end of the meeting though, they won a concession agreeing that it be put provisonally on the agenda next year.

Greenpeace campaigner Louisa Casson was at the talks and said this was “incredibly exciting” and that deep-sea mining has now become”less likely” while Costa Rica’s negotiator Gina Guillen-Grillo tweeted that there will be a discussion on a temporary ban next year.

Proud of the results of hard work led by likeminded countries🇨🇷🇨🇱🇻🇺🇵🇼🇫🇷 with the support of many others,this week at the ISA.
We achieved that next ISA Assembly will have stand alone discussion of General Policy for the application of Precautionary Principle @CRcancilleria pic.twitter.com/YMwA427BSy

— Gina Guillen-Grillo (@GinaGGCR) July 29, 2023

But other environmentalists were less upbeat. Bobbi-Jo Dobush from The Ocean Foundation told Mongabay that China’s blocking of talks on a ban “squandered hours of much needed discussion time” and deep sea scientist Patricia Esquete said the blocking of talks was “very concerning”.

The mining companies claim that minerals like nickel and cobalt are needed in batteries and will help speed up the energy transition but environmental campaigners like Casson dispute this, saying that more mining isn’t necessary and deepsea mining will damage ecosystems we still know little about.

Agenda fight

In Kingston, a coalition of over a dozen countries spearheaded by Chile, France and Costa Rica tried to officially debate for the first time in history the possibility to ban deep-sea mining until its full impact on the ocean’s biodiversity is understood.

Hervè Berville, the French Minister for Marine Affairs, told the Assembly on Wednesday that the world “must not and cannot embark on a new industrial activity without measuring the consequences and taking the risk of irreversible damage”.

But China, Mexico and the Pacific island of Nauru opposed a halt. While Mexico and Nauru relented, China continued to oppose even putting a moratorium on the official agenda saying it was “not suitable” for discussion.

Gina Guillén, head of the Costa Rican delegation said “just one country is opposing [the agenda item on the discussion]. We hope it does happen. One country can’t hijack the most important body of the [ISA] just for being a big economy. That goes against all principles of multilateralism.”

In a bad-tempered last day of talks, China’s negotiator Wenting Zhao defended herself, saying that if the agenda isn’t agreed “everyone will know who is responsible for this”.

France’s negotiator hit back, saying that those “who blame others are the responsible for this situation” and “if there is a responsibility, it is not ours, we have made concessions”.

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Eventually, governments agreed a compromise. They would not discuss a ban at this meeting but would put a discussion on the provisional agenda next year. This year it was only proposed for the supplementary agenda.

Casson said the discussion “would still need to be adopted by governments so [there] may well be pushback” but she said that moving it from the supplementary agenda to the provisional shows “substantive arguments against it have conceded”.

“This compromise does in effect accept that the ISA Assembly does have the authority to debate the development of a general policy of the ISA, including the possibility of a establishing moratorium on deep-sea mining. So arguably a small step forward but only the beginning of the debate in the Assembly,” Casson explained.

Time pressure

On the other side to Casson is Gerrard Barron, the outspoken CEO of the leading deep sea mining hopeful The Metals Company (TMC). In a statement targetted at investors in his troubled company, he celebrated the ISA’s decision to keep drawing up rules for deep-sea mining.

“It is now a question of when — rather than if — commercial-scale nodule collection will begin”, he said.

The ISA had been pressured into this by the government of Nauru, which is sponsoring TMC. In July 2011, the government of the tiny Pacific nation triggered a mechanism which gave the ISA two years to write up regulations for mining.

That deadline passed this July. Barron said he was “obviously disappointed” that they didn’t finish writing the rules on time but said he believes “the finishing line is within sight”.

But Barron’s investors were less impressed, as TMC’s share price nearly halved between the start of the meeting and its end.

Deep-sea mining ban draws closer despite China's opposition

Casson said that the meeting had showed how politically controversial deep sea mining had become and that, as it needs to be signed off by governments at the ISA, it was unlikely to start soon.

Critical minerals

The International Energy Agency has warned that there are likely to be shortages in minerals like lithium, cobalt and nickel which will hold back the energy transition.

But, with more investment in mining on land, the IEA’s fears are easing and Casson said that companies like Tesla are cuttinb back on the amount of these minerals they use.

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Casson said that these minerals and batteries should be recylcled “rather than looking to repeat the problems of mining on land in the ocean”.

The ISA’s power only covers parts of the sea which are more than 200 miles from the coast and more than 200 metres deep.

Mining on the seabed closer to the coast is allowed under international rules but no government has started doing it yet.

The Norwegian government has proposed mining its northern waters and will put their proposals to parliament this autumn.

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