Citing climate change, France on Thursday called for an international ban on deep sea mining, upending negotiations by a UN-affiliated organization to allow the exploitation of unique ocean ecosystems for valuable metals to begin within two years.
“As the effects of climate change become increasingly threatening and the erosion of biodiversity continues to accelerate, today it does not seem reasonable to hastily launch a new project, that of deep seabed mining, the environmental impacts of which are not yet known and may be significant for such ancient ecosystems which have a very delicate equilibrium,” French Ambassador Olivier Guyonvarch told the International Seabed Authority at a meeting of its policymaking Council in Kingston, Jamaica.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea treaty established the ISA in 1994 to regulate mining in international waters while at the same time ensuring the protection of the marine environment. After years of negotiations to develop mining regulations, ISA member nation Nauru in 2021 triggered a provision in the treaty that requires the Council to approve those regulations within two years.
Otherwise, the Council may be compelled to provisionally approve an application for mining by The Metals Company, a Canadian-registered seabed mining venture sponsored by Nauru, a tiny Pacific island nation. Nauru, like other ISA member states that sponsor mining contractors, would receive royalties from any seabed mining.
Over the past two weeks, a growing number of member states of the ISA, which includes 167 countries and the European Union, have called for a “precautionary pause” or moratorium on mining due to the lack of scientific data on fragile and biodiverse deep ocean ecosystems targeted for exploitation. Among the countries demanding a pause are Germany, France, Spain, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Chile, Panama, Palau, Fiji and the Federated States of Micronesia.
Meanwhile, Brazil, the Netherlands, Portugal, Singapore, Switzerland and other Council members have indicated they would not approve any mining contracts until sufficient environmental protections for the seabed are in place, regardless of a July 2023 deadline to adopt regulations.
Then on Monday at the COP27 climate summit in Egypt, French President Emmanuel Macron advocated a complete ban on deep sea mining. Guyonvarch, the head of France’s delegation to the ISA, formally proposed such a ban at Thursday’s Council meeting, saying the world had changed since the ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty.
At the time, the deep sea was widely considered a muddy, lifeless abyss, albeit one rich in cobalt, nickel and other metals potentially worth trillions of dollars. Scientists now believe the seabed set to be mined is among the most biodiverse places on the planet, with a role in the global climate that remains little understood.
“When the ISA was created…almost 30 years ago now, the challenges that we face today, the urgency of climate action and the collapse of biodiversity and its ecosystem services, were not the same,” said Guyonvarch.
France’s call for a ban drew rebukes from other ISA members. The Cook Islands, which sponsors a mining company, asked whether France would relinquish its seat on the 36-member Council and give up the two mining contracts it sponsors. “We hope France will reconsider its position,” Cook Islands’ delegate said.
Representatives from Norway, Singapore, Poland, Canada and other countries also questioned France’s position and reiterated their support for the development of mining regulations.
Other nations, including Costa Rica, Chile and Germany, welcomed France’s statement as reinforcing their own call for a pause in the rush to adopt mining regulations.
“The link between climate change and the ocean is clear,” said Clement Yow Mulalap, the representative for the Federated States of Micronesia. “As a small developing island state, my country is particularly concerned about the cascading changes on the marine environment from climate change.”
(By Todd Woody)