Last month I had the honour of sharing my knowledge on the threats of deep-sea mining with the European Court of Auditors in Luxembourg. I had never visited this rather prestigious branch of the European Union before so it was a privilege to be invited to speak.
Before embarking on my ocean-focused career, I was an environmental consultant. Among others I undertook environmental due diligence and compliance audits. I was registered with the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA), which is akin to being a chartered accountant but then for the world of environmental regulations. Needless to say I am very familiar with the rigour, accuracy and diligence required to do an audit and regulate activties. And it was this aspect of deep-sea mining that I tried to explore in more depth in my session.
If we allow deep-sea mining in international waters to go ahead, it will take place in an area that is outside the jurisdiction of any one nation (the High Seas). Deep-sea mining will be extremely difficult to regulate. Even if regulations are put in place how will operations in the deep-sea be audited? Deep-sea mining will happen at depths of up to 4-6 km. How will we enforce any regulations at such depths and what does accountability look like in practice in an area that isn't governed by any one country? As it stands deep-sea mining could happen as early as this year but it would be a mistake to rush the adoption of a mining code without fully understanding the limitations in terms of practical compliance. We also do not yet fully understand the long term impacts of deep-sea mining to our living planet, which is why hundreds of scientists are calling for a pause to this industry.
Moreover the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which would be the body regulating mining, only has a mandate for the seabed not the water column above it. But once the seabed is disturbed by heavy mining machinery, the impacts will be felt in the water column both vertically and laterally above the mining sites. Sediment plumes, possible toxic contamination and noise pollution will all impact an area of the Earth’s biosphere that does not fall under the auspices of the ISA.
A question I have been pondering is this. What mechanisms will the new UN treaty to protect biodiversity on the High Seas put in place to regulate, enforce and hold countries to account for the damage to life in the water column resulting from deep-sea mining? This new treaty will hopefully be finalised in the next couple of weeks at the UN in New York.
The High Seas make up almost half our planet. If we let mining in this area go ahead it has the potential to expand and impact huge swathes of the ocean. Once mining begins and different countries rush to extract minerals from the deep-sea it will be very difficult to stop. Is it really wise to leave the fate of the seabed - an essential part of Earth's living system to a single authority that does not fall under the auspices of something greater such as the United Nations? Moreover the ISA’s mandate does not factor in the climate and biodiversity crises, both of which stand to worsen if mining in this delicate and slow growing realm of the deep goes ahead. Is the ISA fit for purpose? The sensible thing to do as we grapple with these questions is to put in place a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
As someone who has been studying environmental systems for decades now, I firmly believe that we should not embark on a new form of ecocide*. We know that deep-sea mining will cause irreversible damage to the deep-sea, we know that it risks disturbing locked away carbon and we also know that we don’t need to mine the deep-sea to accelerate the transition economy.
- Farah Obaidullah, MSc, DIC, BSc (Hons) Imperial College London. Ocean Advocate & Founder Women4Oceans
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*Ecocide. There is a movement underway to get ecocide adopted as the fifth international crime under the Rome Statutes (the other crimes being war crimes, crimes of aggression, crimes against humanity and genocide). The legal definition for the purpose of the statute means unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts. Deep-sea mining fits this legal definition of Ecocide.
** What is the European Court of Auditors? The ECA acts as the European Union’s external auditor. Their mission is to carry out audit work to assess the economy, effectiveness, efficiency, legality and regularity of EU action to improve accountability, transparency and financial management. Through their work the ECA enhances citizens’ trust and responds effectively to current and future challenges facing the EU.
*** To learn more about deep-sea mining, what the risks are and how it is that mining can happen as early as this year, watch this short film: In Too Deep – The True Cost of Deep-Sea Mining.
**** To find out more about Farah including her newly released book: The Ocean and Us visit: farahobaidullah.com The Ocean and Us explores the different ways our lives interact with the ocean. It brings together the expertise of over 35 ocean specialists.