Will COP26 ignite deep sea mining as the engine for a clean energy transition?
In the month of October, TSC.ai will publish a series of weekly insights on emerging topics within the COP26 landscape and its 4 Goals to combat climate change - mitigation, adaptation, collaboration, and finance. On the basis of insights generated from TSC’s global sensing technology Atium, we will highlight the stories that are yet often overlooked but provide valuable guidance in reaching the Goals that this historic conference is looking to set.
A lack of critical minerals puts the clean energy transition at risk
COP26’s main mission is to create a framework that secures global net zero by mid-century in order to limit global warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius, a goal set by the 2015 Paris Agreement1. At the Conference in Glasgow, we are expecting countries and private sector players to announce their commitments and plans to phase out coal, speed up the switch to electric vehicles and invest in renewables. There are many things to iron out in this dramatic energy systems shift, but one important factor to consider is the availability and stable supply of critical minerals like copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt - key materials to run wind turbines, electricity networks, EVs, and so much more. The expected supply of such minerals through conventional mining is estimated to meet only half of projected lithium and cobalt requirements and 80% of copper needs by 2030. At the same time, the World Bank estimates a 500% demand increase of such minerals by 20502.
Deep sea mining - a contested solution to fill the gap
Presented with a “looming mismatch between climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realising those ambitions”- as stated in a recently published report3 - mining minerals from the international seabed presents an enticing alternative. Let’s take a deep dive:
- What are we mining for in the deep sea? Polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulfides and cobalt-rich crusts are collected from the seabed. Nodules for example contain high concentrations of four essential battery metals, and are often labeled “EV battery in a rock”4.
- Where exactly are we mining? Deep sea mining happens at about 3000-6,500 meters below the ocean’s surface in territorial waters and interest in mining in international waters is growing.
- Who has a permit to mine here? Over the past 20 years, 31 exploration licenses have been granted by the International Seabed Authority (ISA)5, the United Nations governing body responsible for seabed mining. The licenses enabled 18 national governments to directly or indirectly get involved in deep sea mining ventures across the globe5.
- What are the benefits? Advocates argue that deep sea mining can be a solution to issues inherent to conventional mining, such as displacement of local communities, deforestation, political trade tensions, and global greenhouse gas emissions at 4 to 7%6.
- What are the concerns? The consequences of deep sea mining are not yet fully understood as it is a relatively new field. However, experts have raised concerns, in particular with regards the removal of parts of the sea floor resulting in disturbances to the benthic layer and the likely negative effects on seabed habitats.
Operations are currently paused while awaiting ISA’s green light via a set of mining regulations, known as the Mining Code. A delay of almost a year has tested the patience of contractors, who have since resorted to increased lobbying and public pressure on the ISA7. This triggered a fierce response from a coalition of 550 scientists, who called for a moratorium emphasizing the need for adequate research prior to mining taking place. This call was not left unheard, and a motion “to protect deep-ocean ecosystems and biodiversity through a moratorium on seabed mining” was adopted by various governments, NGOs, and civil society groups at the recent International World Biodiversity Congress (IUCN) in Marseille.
The future of deep sea mining may be decided at COP26
Despite its relevance as a potential catalyst for the clean energy transition, deep sea mining has so far remained only a fringe debate in the realm of COP26. Yet, we identified that 4 governments that currently operate on ISA contracts through (state-owned) companies have taken divergent views on the future of deep sea mining since the IUCN Conference in Marseille. What can this possibly tell us about these governments that are expected to announce ambitious roadmaps in Glasgow?
- Germany - pro moratorium / against deep sea mining: With an ambitious Energiewende 2030 plan in place with half of all electricity supply to come from renewable energy sources and coal use will be phased out by 2038, Germany can be counted as one of the European leaders in decarbonization. Yet, fulfilling its critical materials demand is heavily dependent on imports8. With ties to BGR, we could expect Germany to vote against a moratorium or at least abstain. It did not - pushed by key industrial players like BMW9, Germany backed a moratorium. This is a clear indication that for Germany at this point in time, environmental concerns weigh more than an industrial opportunity. Germany can position itself as the driving force away of a possible deep sea mining debate and champion resource-efficiency and closed-loop material cycles advocated for by players like BMW.
- Belgium - against moratorium / pro deep sea mining: Belgium is facing an uphill battle to address its energy security issues. Nuclear energy covers over half of electricity demand, while the government plans to phase out nuclear between 2022 and 2025. Almost half of Belgium’s gas imports come from the Netherlands’ northern province of Groningen, which will stop production in mid-202210. Having a stake in deep sea mining operations via the contractor Global Sea Mineral Resources NV. and DEME Group, there is significant rationale for Belgium to advance deep sea mining. If it is put on the COP agenda, we can expect Belgium to be a strong advocate.
- The United Kingdom - abstained: Having set a net-zero goal for 2050, with a large share of renewables in its power mix by 2030, and a Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution11, COP26 is the ultimate opportunity for Boris Johnson’s government to establish the country as the global leader in decarbonization. Given this steep ambition and with close ties to contractors like Lockheed Martin and UK Seabed Resources Ltd., it is not a surprise the United Kingdom leaves the door to deep sea mining open.
- France - abstained: France plans to reduce the share of nuclear from 70% to 50% in its electricity mix by 2035 and close its last coal plants by 2022. With a strong requirement in investments in renewable energy going forward, France - like the United Kingdom - leaves the door open. Given its stake in Ifremer, a leader in ocean science and exploration, France is well positioned to lead the research efforts on deep sea mining and its impact and thereby potentially securing a spot for exploration in the near future.
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