Opinion: On deep-sea mining, climate change, and the guidelines needed to ensure ocean sustainability

A man departs by boat from the island of Malakula in Vanuatu. Photo by: Connor Ashleigh / AusAID / Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade / CC BY

I have followed the ongoing tug of war between opposing sides of the deep-sea mining debate and was waiting for someone to offer the third side of the story. Then I came across the first response from one of the small island nations when the newly elected prime minister of the Cook Islands, Mark Brown, defended his country’s decision to proceed with the early stage exploration of manganese nodules.

I empathize with the struggles the prime minister is going through, trying to reconcile his country’s active initiatives related to ocean conservation under its bold Marae Moana declaration and its need to achieve economic development.

As a strong and active ocean advocate, I have also found myself being torn between my own conflicting emotions on this issue. At the United Nations’ inaugural Ocean Conference in New York in June 2017, I made up my mind that deep-sea mining is inevitable and that there is an urgent need to formulate guidelines on best practices for mining to ensure sustainability of the oceans.

Ever since the prospect of deep-sea mining was proposed in the early 1980s, a number of small Pacific island nations waited for it to become a reality. I was then Kiribati’s secretary for the Ministry of Natural Resources Development. I recall the excitement it caused in a country that had in 1979 just lost its major source of revenue with the cessation of phosphate mining on one of our islands, Banaba.

Since then, much has been learned — primarily from climate change — about the limits and sensitivity of our relatively small planet to provide life-support services to its nearly 8 billion people.

We learned the hard way that the Earth is a closed system, similar to a giant spaceship hurtling through the cosmos with no chance of resupply. Manipulation of materials in a closed system will have effects throughout, as happens with burning fossil fuels polluting our atmosphere and mining — the most destructive industry we have — generating the single-largest waste stream on the planet and producing around 10% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

The world must use renewable energy, and it requires a huge influx of base metals for batteries, generators, and other metal-intensive components. The age of oil will be replaced with the age of metals, which are infinitely recyclable. But we do not have enough virgin metal in our system yet to close the loop and only use recyclable materials.

There is hope. Recent analysis shows that polymetallic nodules on the seafloor contain these metals and that their collection causes far less damage to the planetary health we need to sustain us.

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When the trade-offs are considered, collecting nodules may be a better choice than land mining, which disturbs carbon-rich tropical rainforests, dislocates Indigenous human communities, and is a significant contributor to climate change in its own right. The ocean offers a solution that, while counterintuitive, may prove better for it, if it brings us to the promised renewable energy quicker at a time when we are dancing so perilously close to catastrophic tipping points.

Much of the opposition to deep-sea mining comes from high-income countries that do not understand what it means to nations that have yet to enjoy the benefits of developed economies. The responsible use of seabed minerals, as may be achieved with polymetallic nodules, brings opportunity to Pacific island nations and is better for the planet than further destruction on land.

My belief is that mining is inevitable simply because the small island nations in the Pacific Ocean, where it is most likely to take place, will want it to proceed. The question will be: “Can they or should they be stopped or dissuaded from doing so?”

As a leader in one of the small island states whose very survival is under serious threat from climate change, my crusade while in office and since leaving in 2016 has been to find solutions to our inevitable demise. All indications so far are that, as a global community, we are not moving fast enough and need to take action.

Deep-sea mining is inevitable and ... there is an urgent need to formulate guidelines on best practices for mining to ensure sustainability of the oceans.

For those of us at most risk and who had the least to do with creating the problem, we see little responsibility taken and little action, either by way of cutting emissions or in building the climate resilience necessary to weather the oncoming disaster. Meanwhile, our nations — those that have been home to our ancestors and civilization for thousands of years — are told it is bad for the economic growth of countries that created the problem and have the means to do something for those of us who are literally drowning.

A solution once offered by a former Australian prime minister was to allow our people into Australia in exchange for access to our so-called exclusive economic zones. Others proposed the formation of compact-type arrangements similar to those in existence between the Micronesian states and the United States or between New Zealand and some Polynesian island states.

But again, these proposals reflect a lack of understanding at the heart of what these island states want: to maintain the existence of their home islands for as long as possible, at whatever cost.

Therefore, faced with the inevitable loss of our home islands and with inadequate resources to build climate resilience, I believe that the small island nations for which deep-sea mining is an option will have no option but to proceed with it. For any leader who must choose between saving their country and people or collecting potato-sized rocks lying loose on a small patch of ocean bottom representing less than 1% of the total seafloor, the choice is clear.

However, if this pathway is not open to us because the values of the global north are being projected upon us, then I believe that Pacific island nations must be duly compensated for not mining.

So Prime Minister Brown, I do share your dilemma, but as a leader, you have a decision to make.

Visit the Turning the Tide series for more coverage on climate change, resilience building, and innovative solutions in small island developing states. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #TurningtheTide.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Anote Tong

    Anote Tong is former president of the Republic of Kiribati and a two-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.