Deep-Sea Mining, Renewables and Sustainability

The ocean bed holds the key to many of the world’s challenges. For example, some of the materials used in clean-energy technology come from the deep sea bed.

The world population is increasing and likely to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. The increased population will have higher energy requirements. The climate crisis that we face leads us to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Renewable energy sources have to fill the gap left behind by fossil fuels. Renewable energy will require significant amounts of ethically sourced materials.

Deep-sea mining refers to retrieving mineral deposits from the deep sea – the area of the ocean below 200 m which covers about 65% of the Earth’s surface. With terrestrial resources depleting, deep seabed mining has received increasing attention. 

Materials like nickel, copper, manganese and cobalt are found in the deep sea bed and must be mined sustainably. Marine biologists believe that the deep seabed is part of one of the least-understood environments on Earth. It holds the key to the health of the oceans. Oceans are a vital carbon sink. They absorb up to a quarter of all global emissions. Deep seabed mining may reduce the ability of the ocean to act as a carbon sink. Oceans are a living ecosystem, and extraction activity is likely to disturb the ecosystem leading to significant changes in the seabed. Oceans are home to thousands of species of tiny invertebrates fundamental to the ocean food web. Some scientists believe that the mineral nodules may also play a role in the ocean processes.

Apart from disturbing marine ecology, deep-sea mining can also lead to increased pollution, noise and vibrations from mining activity, leaks and spills of fuels and toxic products.

Deep-sea mining stirs up fine sediments on the seafloor consisting of silt, clay and the remains of microorganisms, creating plumes of suspended particles. Depending on how long they take to disperse and resettle on the ocean floor, the impact of mining could be severe.

Thus, deep seabed mining could have long-term and potentially devastating impacts on marine life. To minimise the impact, we need to do the following. 

  1. Baseline studies: Prepare extensive baseline studies to assess the impact of deep-sea mining. 
  2. Environmental impact assessments: Undertake assessments to determine the extent and duration of environmental damage and the impact on marine biodiversity.
  3. Mitigation: Invest in R&D and technology development to produce better ways of extracting these minerals.
  4. Increased regulation: Regulation will ensure that mining is undertaken properly. It will also ensure that measures are taken to minimise environmental impacts. This will also eliminate mining in fragile ecologies. The International Seabed Authority is tasked with organising, regulating and controlling all mineral-related activities.
  5. Circular economy: Enhancing product design to use less or alternative materials can also reduce the demand.

A comprehensive approach to deep-sea mining is critical. While we push for net-zero targets and their achievement, we have to keep in mind the impacts on the oceans covering 71per cent of Earth’s surface. 

Published by Utkarsh Majmudar

Utkarsh Majmudar is a Fellow, IIM Ahmedabad and a professional with experience encompassing academics and administration at top business schools in India (IIM Lucknow, IIM Udaipur, and IIM Bangalore) and working with large corporations. His interest areas include corporate finance and CSR.

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