Written and researched for Safe Tech International by Sean Carney, 31 May 2022.
Are UN Sustainable Development Goals Green Capitalism’s Free Ride to Profits?
Deep Sea Mining is a commercial enterprise currently in its infancy. It is the latest bonanza being sold on the back of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The history of the UN is also the history of this organisation empowering transnational corporations in their pillage of resources. Playing the scarcity card, profiteering TNCs (Transnational corporations) consider the oceans their next port of call as they make ardent preparations to divest this “new economic frontier” of its finite resources.
Since 1945, security of Earth and Sea reources has been viewed in terms of a globe with a target on it, the symbol on the United Nations dreamy sky-blue flag. We’ve seen how the earth has been targeted into the 20th century as transnational corporations, which steer the UN, have wreaked environmental havoc, and degraded human life taking advantage of geographical wealth divides to mine, refine, manufacture, and pollute, with maximal profits.
Today, as transnational corporations take advantage of a growing digital divide, the persistent wealth divide causes the e-waste burden of our technology addiction to fall upon the poorer nations, ruining their local environment. Sustainable development goals were launched with Agenda 21, as a way to mitigate such disasters. However, SDGs simply rebrand the pillage of TNCs. With SDGs in place, they greenwash their continued pillage and profiteering operations, callously disregarding the broadening trail of environmental devastation in their wake.
Agenda 21 is shrewdly rebranded capitalism, courtesy of UN SDGs, which serve UN stakeholders like the TNCs that have helped invent them. Now, with a “green economy” exploiting Earth’s comprehensive resources and a “blue economy” exploiting the oceans resources, capitalism has been suitably coloured and flavoured to sell us Agenda 21’s sustainable future. They embed hooks like “clean energy” and “renewable energy”, concepts that might signify a transition from fossil fuels but rely on destructive mining all the same.
These so-called “sustainable” energy solutions are needed to power the technologies necessary to realise another central “sustainability” goal of the UN and the TNCs. That goal is full spectrum connectivity to AI (artificial intelligence) through the wirelessly enabled Internet of Things (IoT). Such “sustainability” demands our sustained addiction to wireless technologies, envisaged as guaranteeing the automated electrical “clean energy” future enshrined in UN SDGs.
The Internet of Oceans is also under development with “around 380 underwater cables in operation around the world, spanning a length of over 1.2 million kilometres (745,645 miles)” driving the evolution global internet coverage with fibreoptic cables for 5G, and the anticipated 6G technological paradigm shift to a virtual reality service economy.
In this globalised strategy for sustained environmental pillage waged on behalf of rebranded capitalism flaunting SDG compliance, we become ardent consumers sustaining the rapacious TNCs through our technological dependency. Through the attraction of SDGs, and policies like “net zero” catalysing “decarbonisation”, we have invested in propositions for solutions. However, commitments by the UN’s lobbying TNCs to “play by these rules” can look good on paper, but are not enforceable, as any Green NGO will testify to. For instance, Greenpeace in 2019 stated that “with deep sea mining companies ramping up their political lobbying against a strong Global Ocean Treaty that can protect marine life from exploitation, we need a stronger signal that deep sea mining has no future.”
In 2022, reports The Guardian, “UN member states have failed to agree on a treaty to protect the high seas from exploitation.” https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/21/un-ocean-treaty-summit-collapses-as-states-accused-of-dragging-out-talks
The power of lobbying by TNCs, which, like member states, are high level stakeholders in the UN, should not be underestimated.
The deep blue seas – in need of preservation and regeneration – are being targeted for destructive exploitation too and are branded “the blue economy.” According to a 2018 report by Global Citizen (GCit), “just 13% of the world’s oceans have intact marine ecosystems, while the rest have been plundered and degraded.” The GCit article had expressed hope because at the time the UN was “spearheading an effort to comprehensively protect the high seas.”
However, in 2021, owing to a “sub-clause in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea
that allows countries to pull a ‘two-year trigger’ if they feel negotiations are going too slowly”, the UN began the process of signing over our seas for deep sea mining. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-57687129
Deep sea mining companies plan to harvest finite mineral resources “for clean energy” to the tune of global mineral “scarcity”. The Metals Company [a.k.a. DeepGreen] and other deep sea mining operations claim polymetallic nodules, which are usually concentrated on the abyssal seabed of ocean basins are a “sustainable substitute for metals mined on land.”
The threat to ocean ecosystems comes from technology employed by sea mining companies. They use robotic vehicles to scour the ocean basins and suction pumps to churn up the pristine carbon-storing sea floor sediments to the surface for analysis, spewing the collected sedimentary debris back into the sea. The hunt for mineral rich polymetallic nodules will damage and suffocate complex and delicate ecosystems in the deep-sea biome. Our addiction to technology compels this desperately insidious ocean raiding because our technology relies on those rare metals and minerals. We may have invested in SDGs, and feel empowered by supporting “sustainable goals”, but to what avail?
Our Technological Addiction and the Call of Nature
Our addiction to technology can cause nature to recede in our conscious awareness. When we can make room for nature, we may experience being in awe of nature, identify with it, and pay attention to it, observing our natural world throughout the seasons. We might then appreciate its value, because we have allowed an open connection, so that it lives in our imagination and our being.
This state of connection can, and has, happened with technology. It can compel all our attention. As a result, the conversation we had with nature recedes from our senses, and we are back in a world where we must habitually shed resource hungry technologies like a toxic skin because of planned obsolescence and the desire to have attractive “upgrades”. We barely appreciate the impact on nature, that our technocratic society fosters. We are blind to the barely recycled e-waste and the deep-sea mining that will help create more of it.
Sometimes we can’t ignore nature however, especially if there is a volcano near our city! We can’t help but connect to something so awesome. When I visited the city of Catania on the island of Sicily, I soon became aware from conversations with locals that Catania had historically suffered the trials of a large volcano. Yet the region had also flourished and benefitted from the unique fertile environments created from periodic volcanic events.
More than 20% of Sicilians live on the volcano’s slopes because of the fertile soils. The volcano Mount Etna or “Mama Etna” as the locals call her, is celebrated with reverence as a force that gives so much to Earth. In calm measure, it is recognised “Mama Etna” can also take away. In the event of devastating eruptions, lives and homes have been lost. However, with Etna on the doorstep, communities thrive and benefit from the incredible fertility and unique natural habitats enriched by the thriving flora and fauna around its slopes.
Comparing Deep Sea Mining to Volcanic Destruction: Biome Resilience Green-Washing?
Similar interdependence of species is mirrored within the volcanically enriched ocean biome. Eruptions can cause disruption beneath the sea but don’t stop the richness of life or diversity from persisting and thriving – they add to ocean life’s natural complexity and create new possibilities for life. Species of the ocean floor benefit from, and even thrive anew after submarine volcanic eruptions. Today the ocean’s multifarious ecosystems face interference and destruction arising from human endeavours, like burgeoning deep-sea mining.
Mining on any level (unlike volcanoes which can dramatically enrich environments and ecosystems) can impoverish lands and hamper biodiversity, creating polluted and ravaged places where no-one can live. Can we expect the same to be happening beneath the sea as mining machines churn through Earth’s vast store of pristine seabeds?
For deep sea mining companies, green-washing their endeavours and purposes in light of growing criticism, has become a necessity. The technique of aligning their activities to sustainable development goals (SDGs), something all UN member state industries are compelled to do, has given many industries a facelift and scope to flaunt a “green” public image.
The Flaws in Environmental Impact Assessment Research
Deep sea mining operations are subject to Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) research, which evaluate marine environments and report to the UN. EIAs evaluate a marine environment’s “recoverability after disturbance and…estimate the capacity for resilience in deep-sea ecosystems.”
The International Seabed Authority (ISA) leaves it up to contractor countries (UN member states that sponsor sea mining contractors) to conduct (fund) EIAs at proposed seabed mining sites. EIAs are pooled together to create a growing resource. Comprehensive contextual environmental impact data is lacking due to the “infancy” of the deep sea mining industry.
Deep sea mining is regarded as an “ecosystem service” because it creates value from seabed minerals for energy resources. Its value as an ecosystem service is assigned in relation to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA). Because of this EIAs should demonstrate how operations minimise impact to valued ecosystems and human communities “in the context of fisheries, refineries, and social systems.”
Deep sea drilling and mining have destructive impacts on benthic (seabed) flora and fauna. The ocean is a carbon sink because the seabed stores carbon, which according to UN SDGs, contributes to global warming. Carbon in sediments, and in deep seabed rocks formed over millions of years, hosts incalculable ecosystems and lifeforms. There is huge potential for deep sea mining to degrade other “ecosystem services” like fishing, causing species collapse, pollution, and increased acidification of the ocean. The implications of deep-sea mining are far reaching. Savethehighseas.org has said “existing information has led scientists to warn that biodiversity loss will be inevitable – and most likely irreversible.” http://www.savethehighseas.org/deep-sea-mining/impacts-of-deep-sea-mining/#:~:text=Deep-sea%20mining%20is%20still%20in%20the%20experimental%20stage%2C,will%20be%20inevitable%20–%20and%20most%20likely%20irreversible
Anyone concerned about the environment, sustainability, and what the UN regards as climate change, is encouraged to scrutinise EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) research data. Many failures of EIAs have been identified. One major failure is that they “they prioritize infrastructural development over the need to protect the ecosystems.” Other EIA issues can be summarised as failures to inform local communities, reliance on unprofessional government bodies tasked with conducting EIAs, creating low quality EIA data, a lack of political goodwill to implement EIAs, a lack of public participation in EIA processes, and finally interference by developers, who don’t take EIAs seriously, nor value the tools or the outcome of EIAs because of their potential to derail projects.
EIA research to date has suggested disturbance caused by deep sea mining is comparable to the kind of natural but enriching violence that “Mama Etna” might inflict on unsuspecting Catania occasionally. Life in the Sicilian region must rebuild and “carry on regardless.” Similar “resilience” is expected of delicate ocean ecosystems affected by deep sea mining, according to researchers.
The sea mining induced decimations and gradual recovery of affected ocean habitats has been compared to biome upheavals caused by volcanic disturbances. This has been concluded from “long-term observation of post-volcanic activities.”This finding demonstrates how a lack of deep-sea mining research can produce low quality data reliant on analogies rather than clear scientific evidence. https://conferences.iaia.org/2016/Final-Papers/Yamamoto,%20Hiroyuki%20-%20EIA%20Protocol%20Deep-Sea%20Ecosystems%20and%20Seabed%20Mining.pdf
Analogies and data derived from simulations in relation to deep sea mining, could easily be adapted for green-washing purposes, such as making claims about impacts and sustainability.
Cyrill Martin, an ocean policy expert at the Swiss NGO OceanCare said, “The main data we have from deep-sea mining activities stems from laboratory conditions.” Simulations in a laboratory might inform EIAs. However, an artificial model constructed in a lab cannot possibly show the true impact of sea mining on pristine mesopelagic, bathyal, abyssal, and hadopelagic ocean depths. These unique environments host many ancient and unidentified species of animals, fauna and microbes, interacting within ecosystems reliant on specific temperatures, levels of illumination and biome cycles.
Calling for a Moratorium on Deep Sea Mining
Owing to the profound lack of reliable data concerning deep sea mining “…more than 350 scientists from 44 countries signed a petition calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining…until sufficient and robust scientific information has been obtained”.
The precautionary approach would appear sensible. We now have enough experience and evidence to show that surface mining has had an irrevocable impact on the Earth’s environment. Oceanic sea mining is ultimately destructive to the environment for the same reasons. Surveys of land after surface mining illustrates perfectly how environments are devastated and polluted, and often left uninhabitable. Nevertheless, ocean mining projects, can be made to appear more “sustainable”.
People expect that “sustainable practices support ecological, human, and economic health and vitality.” However, can such positive sounding criteria really be applied when we are talking about sea mining and all it implies for human and sea life? With sea mining we are talking about the calculated wrecking of the home of countless interdependent species. It isn’t the same as the chance occurrence of volcanic activity. Sea Mining is a concerted, relentless scavenge for ore and minerals cloistered in the habitats of sensitive living creatures.
Comparing the profound devastation expected from deep sea mining to the very different environmental effects of a submarine volcanic eruption creates a fabrication about the impact of sea-mining on the environment. Churning up the seabed scavenging for resources on a regular basis, day after day, year upon year, to feed hungry industry and secure future profits and markets won’t produce the largely beneficial results of volcanos occasionally erupting under the sea.
Anticipating Biodiversity Loss from the Blue Economy Deep Sea Mining Bonanza
Species in the ocean are arguably more adaptable to naturally occurring geological upheaval arising from volcanic events “because of the unique habitats [volcanic activity can] create. [For example] Seamounts are often areas of high biological diversity; their shape acts to deflect food-carrying currents upward, attracting a variety of sessile fauna and the crustaceans and fish that feed upon them. In the late 1970s, scientists were shocked to discover that some animals can even metabolize inorganic compounds emitted during volcanic activity, forming unique communities around hotspots of hydrothermal venting (similar to geyser activity on land)”.
The contentious analogy between volcanic eruptions and sea mining inappropriately “twins” sea mining with a naturally occurring environmental process. In framing the disturbance of the seabed flora and fauna by industrial mining machines in this way, we might infer deep sea mining has less impact. However, although long-term data isn’t available yet, deep sea mining is anticipated to cause colossal harm to ocean life. Certainly, in comparison to the known geothermal and geological activity arising from mostly rare eruptions of volcanoes to which ocean life is already attuned and capable of adapting to.
In 2017 “Marine and legal scientists announced that deep sea mining would inevitably lead to biodiversity loss that is irreversible.”
In contrast to the irreversible loss expected from deep sea mining, it is well established that “Biodiversity exists even around an active or dormant volcano.”
It is known that “80 percent of the volcanic eruptions on Earth take place in the ocean.” Volcanic eruptions and impacts may vary. In terms of their regularity, “the average number of eruptions ongoing per year since 1950 is 63, with a minimum of 46 and maximum of 85 eruptions recorded per year. ”https://oceantoday.noaa.gov/deepoceanvolcanoes/#:~:text=Scientists%20believe%20that%2080%20percent%20of%20the%20volcanic,scientists%20captured%20the%20deepest%20ocean%20eruption%20ever%20found.
Based on this data, how would deep sea mining’s activity and scale compare with the frequency of volcanic activity globally, 80% of which happens under the sea? Sea mining can be shown to be on a larger scale and therefore more destructive than periodic eruptions.
Consider that as of July 2019 the Chinese government released 161,211.2 kilometres of ocean ecosystems for deep sea mining exploration. This has amounted to 263 different licenses, suggesting that many contractors are poised to exploit what is being called a “blue economy” at the industry level and known as an “ecosystem economy” at the policy level. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1132386/global-deep-sea-mining-exploration-land-area-by-country/
From this example alone we see the scale of sea mining dwarfing the impact of global volcanic events considerably. The number of projects and potential for harm already has clear potential to far exceed oceanic eruption impacts. This is certain, because China isn’t the only country being licensed huge swathes of the ocean for sea mining projects. Widespread industrially induced degradation of the seabed will happen globally. The UN and its affiliates like the World Economic Forum (WEF) and their shared membership by influential transnational corporations (TNCs) – with biotech, chemical and metal interests – and member states subscribing to UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), the 1999 Global Compact (GC), and The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) have expressed some reservations about the environmental uncertainties, however they still want the “blue economy” sound attractive.
WEF tells us “The 100 largest companies by revenue in the blue economy earned over $1 trillion in 2018” and they promote the “Ocean 100,” the world’s largest TNCs deriving profits from the ocean and its ecosystems. Science Daily confirms “evidence of large TNCs leading sustainability efforts to meet long-established goals is scant.” I think we can read into this that sea mining will be a continuation along these lines, considering TNCs favour backtracking on their sustainability commitments over profits.
The Ocean Rampage for “Clean Energy”
Following drilling and mining projects in the benthic (seabed) habitats, according to studies, some fauna eventually recovers, however, such resilience is not common to all species. One study (Miljutin, 2011) revealed “deep-sea nematode assemblage has not recovered after 26 years since experimental mining”. It’s not hard to see from this one example how vulnerable species dependent on such organisms could equally disappear and bring whole ecosystems into profound decline.
Dr. Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch Canada has argued that deep-sea mining start-up company DeepGreen will damage the Earth in ways that few would ever imagine possible. She said, “The rocks that DeepGreen ‘The Metals Company’ plans to mine have taken millions of years to form and host diverse and unique life forms. Scientists warn that the destruction of this seabed ecosystem will affect the health of our oceans and planet.” Coumans predicts extensive and severe impacts that could last for generations.
Clearly, unlike the potential of protracted transnational deep sea mining operations, no volcano could ever cumulatively destroy the health of oceans or of the planet. Admittedly, volcanic activity can certainly reconfigure the seascape and may also perturb ecosystems. But we shouldn’t hastily conclude the “volcano” analogy used to describe the drilling and mining of the seabed is a reasonable summation of what sea mining will mean for ocean life. As an example of greenwashing, it adds a suitable veneer, obscuring the nature of deep-sea mining and all it entails.
London Mining Network (LMN) recently gave us an inkling into how the green-washing used by Transnational Mining Corporations works, playing upon public expectations regarding the UN’s sustainable goals requirements. A company naturally wants to convince us they add value by aligning their activities to sustainability.
As LMN discovered, “Mining companies including Anglo American and BHP have positioned themselves as key to solving the climate crisis by claiming that they will deliver the minerals and metals needed for the growing demand for renewable energy, justifying the expansion of metal mining into climate-critical environments such as the deep sea. However, much of the cited metal demand is not closely tied to renewable technologies.”
VC Elements (VCE) reports that the International Energy Agency (IEA) maintains the renewable “energy transition will be mineral intensive and create massive demand for all the metals in renewable tech.” In this regard the IEA earmarks “lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite [as] important for battery performance, durability, and energy density. Rare earth elements are in the permanent magnets that help spin wind turbines and EV motors.” VC Elements also tells us “metals like copper, iron ore, and zinc, along with construction sand, stone, cement, and other industrial minerals” are in “high demand.”
Clearly the resource laden seabed eyed by profiteering TNCs and contractor start-ups across the globe is an attractive opportunity too good to miss? Many claims are being made on misleading grounds of sustainability because of novel mining – such as through deep sea mining or even “green mining” (the mining of volcanos). Companies claim that through their novel mining they are helping us meet the UN’s net zero targets by helping with demand for “clean energy”. What does that demand look like? According to VCE, “in 2020, non-fuel mineral consumption worked out to around 19,000 pounds or 8.6 tonnes per person” in the US alone.
Minerals Are For Our Digital Life
Our technological era obviously demands all manner of ores and compounds buried underground and beneath the sea. Our expansive technologies are based on organic resources, such as crystals and minerals, that grow in the dark recesses of earth. Many of our popular devices predominantly require these finite resources, yet we are being told our technologies are greener and more sustainable, based on how long the battery can last.
The earth is being ripped apart to fulfil UN policies focused on sustainability and so-called clean energy requirements and in our wishful thinking we assume it’s acceptable because we live in a digital economy now, oriented to a smart future, dependent on technology, all of which are supported and facilitated by the UN influencing policy and digital lifestyles. The fact we rely on finite minerals is not compatible with the concept of sustainability. Finite resources are non-renewable and will eventually run out.
The electronic smart world of the IoT (Internet of Things) relies on semiconductor technology which utilises artificially grown crystalline silicon wafers for integrated circuits and microchips. The silicon wafers are “doped” with impurities like phosphorous, arsenic, and other compounds to deliberately change the conductivity of the semiconductor crystals.
We can appreciate therefore that our technologies demand an array of finite and often toxic compounds from minerals. The minerals driving our technocratic paradigm have accumulated in deposits since prehistoric times. Such deposits have been conventionally mined on land at great cost to the environment. Now, industries are taking their mining operations into the depths of the oceans. Prized polymetallic nuggets have become scattered across the ocean floor over millions of years of volcanic activity.
This cumulative geological bounty tossed far and wide from oceanic volcanic activity is what attracts the mining companies today who will capitalise on our addiction to devices.
The future envisioned by the UN and its international membership, comprising influential TNC’s like BASF (a metals company) and member states’ all steering us gladly into a profitable techno-infested world. Gaining environmental intelligence from UNEP research of which they are privy to, have for many years fed our demand for continuous, rapacious mineral mining. Through working the UN membership system in their favour TNCs have been able to anticipate and sustain new markets, create dependency on their products, influence scarcity, and planned obsolescence (which creates e-waste), and greenwash themselves as ethically complying to SDGs, having the solutions to our supply “renewable energy problems” despite having highly contentious records of never having committed to any sustainability goals at all. It’s clearly one rule for industry and policy makers and another for citizens being legislated into compliance with SDGs.
How can we see “promised” sustainable future being any different to the present? Scarcity drives the economy, the motivations of the UN and the profitability sought by TNCs. “The demand for electric cars and electricity storage will only seek to increase demand for cobalt, a commodity essential to producing lithium batteries. Polymetallic nodules (found in the Pacific Ocean) are rich in cobalt and can be harvested from underwater by scooping them off the seabed. Tellurium is a rare earth metal (often likened to platinum for its rarity) used for building wind turbine blades and solar panels. Ferromanganese crusts, many of which are found around the Canary Islands, are rich in this key commodity.”
Would we still crave that future if we could witness the destruction of the seas as robots and infrastructure sprout up and upturn the seabed, alter the delicate chemical balances and ecosystems, in the hunt for finite metallic nuggets? We don’t have to see it, just like we don’t have to see what happens to all the e-waste we create, where lucrative quantities of precious metals are routinely disposed of.
It has been reported, “At least $10bn (£7.9bn) worth of gold, platinum and other precious metals are dumped every year in the growing mountain of electronic waste that is polluting the planet” according to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor report of 2019.
The Guardian, highlighting the report stated, “the amount of e-waste is rising three times faster than the world’s population, and only 17% of it was recycled in 2019.”
While so little of this e-waste is being recycled – most of it decomposing and releasing cadmium and mercury into the environment – the resulting scarcity of minerals favours justification for ventures like deep sea mining in the minds of eager TNCs around the globe. As we know justification is being given on grounds of sustainability and operations are progressively gearing up.
What is going on? Recycling would arguably meet current mineral shortages. Deep sea mining wouldn’t be necessary. No one knows that better than the “sustainability chieftains” at the UN and WHO. But it isn’t going to stop because recycling hasn’t been happening to any significant degree. Deep sea mining has big investments and is constantly being aligned with sustainability. There is no question the expected destruction will happen; no precautionary principle has thus far stopped the premature granting of licenses. Licenses for deep sea mining widely distributed, as we’ve seen with the example of China.
What Assurances do we have Sea mining can be “ethically” pursued?
We might ask, “What is being done to protect our seas from the intensive mining of biodiverse sea ecosystems that is poised to be unleashed as companies exploit the potential of ‘the blue economy’?”
Deep sea mining operations are expected to comply with “exploitation regulations (drafted by the International Seabed Authority, an arm of the United Nations).” The UN is delayed in setting out the rules, which were triggered by the ISA, in hasty response to demands from Lionel Aingimea, president of the Pacific Island nation of Nauru. The UN is busy finalising the rules expected to be ready in 2023. Approval for deep sea mining is expected by Aingimea, who is backing a subsidiary of deep-sea mining company Deep Green (The Metals Company). Controversy surrounds the process, which is being viewed as an abuse of the so-called 2 year rule invoked by Aingimea. Powerless to refuse, despite the obvious ways deep sea mining contradicts SDGs, the UN assists the industry by fast tracking the regulations.
There was once hope of the UN creating an ethical framework for ocean economies, which appeared to balance conservation with the economic goals of member states. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) declared, “All [member] States share a common obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment, including rare or fragile ecosystems as well as the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species and other forms of marine life (UNCLOS articles 192 & 194.5).”
In 1982 The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) was established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In a document called “INTERNATIONAL TRIBUNAL FOR THE LAW OF THE SEA: REPORTS OF JUDGMENTS, ADVISORY OPINIONS AND ORDERS” we learn more about the effort to set rules to govern deep sea mining to make it more environmentally acceptable.
On page 44 – 46 we discover the “Direct Obligations of Sponsoring States” which quotes the 1992 Rio Declaration stating there is “the obligation to apply a precautionary approach; the obligation to apply best environmental practices…”
We should note that, according to ITLOS the precautionary approach as it applies to different states varies, and it is asserted that it may be applied by a member state “according to their capabilities.” Clearly to what extent the precautionary approach or relevant environmental safeguards are useful in protecting the environment and ecosystems is dependent on factors that may or may not lead to equity of enforcement. Shrewd companies could continue the same old capitalist pursuit of profit in states with the most pliable opportunities to evade stringent enforcements of environmental safeguards.
We might ask, “Are these official “rules” just another way for prospectors and licence holders in the sea mining industries to effectively greenwash their activities?” The rules basically tell companies how to take the best political-geographical advantage of the sea. From member state to member state the precautionary incentives vary, as do the standards by which different countries conduct their industries, hence the precautionary approach can only be applied “according to their capabilities.” In some cases, due to lack of capacity, certain states may not be capable of enacting these recommendations in any meaningful way.
Perhaps we should look to UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) for some guidance? UNEP “…supports the implementation of the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles, which are a keystone in the market for financing a sustainable blue economy….[and] provide a road map with a detailed breakdown of which client activities to seek out as best practice, which activities to challenge, and which activities to avoid completely due to their damaging nature.”
What does the UNEP’s March 2021 guidance tell us about deep sea mining? It claims to offer a roadmap showing “which [client] activities to avoid completely due to their damaging nature.”
In this regard, we’d be advised to note the observation of Dr. Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch Canada (quoted in a STOPDeepSeaMining.ca press release of March 5 2021).
Coumans said, “Based on the science, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has just released practical guidance for finance institutions on sustainable ocean finance. Investors should note that this UNEP guidance is clear in its exclusion of deep sea mining as a sustainable option.”
Facing some challenges ahead, especially from environmentalists, perhaps the deep-sea mining industry is left no option but to greenwash its activities to merely seem like they have a sustainability offering. Lobbying the UN, and governments, is another way for the industry to overcome “hurdles”. As Greenpeace have observed “Deep-sea mining companies are lobbying to maximize their profits and could leave nations sponsoring exploration high and dry, burdened with the financial and environmental risks associated with ripping up the seabed.”
The United Nations remains ambiguous in their stance on deep sea mining. On the one hand, in March 2021 they excluded it as a sustainable option, while on the other, they’ve been forced to fast track deep sea mining and if the rules aren’t in place by 2023 the contractors will begin sea mining based on whatever rules have been completed. It’s a very vulnerable position the UN is in, one that could have serious implications for UNCLOS and ITLOS. Currently, according to United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as the Mare blog reminds us “the deep sea and its mineral resources are beyond the national jurisdiction are the common heritage of mankind and do not belong to any specific state.”
The ISA (International Seabed Authority) was established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 1994 Agreement relating to the Implementation of Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1994 Agreement).
International Seabed Authority Secretary-General Mr Michael W Lodge spelled out the importance of deep-sea mining in 2020, aligning it with the UN goal of limiting global warming. He played the scarcity card for the industry, stating that “the World Bank estimates that more than 3 billion tons of minerals and metals will be needed by 2050 to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and limit global warming to 2°C or less.” He proceeded to describe how “Many of these critical minerals are found in the deep seabed” and reminded us of “ISA’s mandate under international law…to ensure these minerals are extracted in a sustainable way.”
However, with reference to ISA’s “mandate”, Vasser Seydel observed, “It is clear that leadership in the ISA is prioritizing the launch of a new global industry and is looking for ways to circumvent rather than prioritize environmental sustainability.”
So, there we have it. A blue economy at any cost, with grand scope for mismanagement and a vague sense of the precautionary principle thrown in as seasoning. Or so it would seem. What this regulatory ambiguity and posturing from industry and regulatory bodies will mean for our oceans amounts to uncharted environmental impacts and damage to other “ecosystem services” like fishing.
The domino effect on species and undersea habitats is set to resonate for generations to come. The UN preaching to us about climate has learned no lessons and appears to be a vehicle to carry scarcity capitalism, betrothed to SDG principles, over the threshold into a green-washed marriage of popular convenience. “Decarbonisation” and “clean energy” are merely slogans of the ill-gotten romance.
The ocean has a climate, and it’s about to decline based on the UN’s inept sea regulations that favour the profiteering of transnational corporations. We can’t take the UN seriously about their responsibilities or SDGs, because, since its inception, the UN have progressively failed to draw up suitable enforceable regulations to protect the oceans, and it was easy for a little Pacific Island to call their bluff, which favours the acceleration of more oceanic pillaging.
The UN is failing to protect our planet from unbridled oceanic marauding and has empowered transnational corporations (powerful commercial entities predisposed to trigger mechanisms like deregulation) that contradict SDGs because sustainable development is just a facile rebrand for “business as usual.”
SDGs are a surface gloss for the benefit of consumers and, are of no avail in improving the environment or protecting ecosystems for future generations. The contemporary mining of ore and mineral extractions has been justified anew by our insatiable appetite for technology, liberally seasoned with the threat of scarcity. Industry 4.0’s exploitation of “the blue economy” has just begun. Calls for moratoriums relating to technologies and consumer markets have fallen on deaf ears in recent years. SDGs, conferring haloes but doing nothing, play upon the resource bonanza fuelling technological addiction. All of this happens to the tune of the 21st century agenda of the UN, where nascent deep-sea mining becomes the latest fixture in the UN’s race to its proposed technological utopia.