Three miles deep along the floor of the abyssal plains of the global oceans, trillions of black, round, rock-like nuggets are scattered and amassed. These rocks, called Polymetallic Nodules, are similar in size and appearance to partially burned charcoal briquettes and are a mixture of nickel, cobalt, manganese, and other rare earth metals. They are formed through a complex millions-of-years-long biochemical process in which shark teeth and fish bones are encased by minerals accreted out of ocean waters.
Why am I telling you this? These rocks just might have the answer for the growing clean energy transition.
A new World Bank Group report, “Minerals for Climate Action: “The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition,” finds that the production of minerals, such as Graphite, Lithium, and Cobalt, could increase by nearly 500% by 2050, to meet the growing demand for clean energy technologies. The group estimates that over 3 billion tons of minerals and metals will be needed to deploy wind, solar and geothermal power and energy storage, required for achieving a below 2°C future.
In other words, the clean energy transition will be mineral intensive, and the race to reach said metals has begun, encompassing resource-rich developing countries and private sector entities alike. The bottom of the sea, or Deep Sea mining, is yet another option that is now coming of age, with the nodules being only a fracture of the open possibilities that the ocean holds.
The deep sea is full of unknown minerals such as Larbium and Eurithuim, alongside Platinum, Silver, Gold, Nickel, Zinc, and more. Cobalt, a mineral in high demand used for rechargeable batteries in the renewable energy sphere, is a deep-sea star. An estimated 94,000 tons of the material are in the ocean bed, more than 6 times its current on-land reserves.
But as the race for deep ocean mining intensifies, scientists and environmental advocates are pushing back, warning that such activity could cause irreversible harm to barely-understood ecosystems.
The debate over mining the earth’s last untouched frontier is growing, and the paradox of the ever-growing sustainable energy industry is in the eye of the storm. Solar and wind energy might be green, but they also require metals and resources whose extraction will contribute to global warming and impact biodiversity. The paradox leads to an underlying question: what ecosystems are we willing to sacrifice in the process? The main concern of activists and marine biologists stems from the fact that the ocean’s bed is one of the least-understood environments on earth, as more than 80% of the ocean remains unexplored. Some scientists say humanity knows more about the moon than we do about the ocean. Some facts support that statement: While the moon’s surface has been explored by 12 people, and has been mapped by satellites from a 100-meter distance, only 3 people have walked on the deep sea bed, and satellites have only been able to map it from 5000 meters away.
The dangers of tapping this unknown environment are vast. According to various researchers, mining the nodules could unleash a worse cascade effect than the current climate change trajectory known today. Oceans play a vital role as carbon sinks, absorbing up to 25 percent of global carbon emissions every year.
And while the process of extracting the nodules is unlikely to directly harm that ability, the nature of the world’s oceans —largely contiguous, with a system of currents that circumnavigate the globe—means that what happens in one area could have a cumulative effect, and cause irreversible damage to other parts. Studies also found that mining will disturb deep ocean life, leading to the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. It could also lead to the extinction of some rare species due to light pollution, habitat disturbance, and more.
Another unsettling outcome of deep-sea mining could be that of methane leaks that could go straight to the atmosphere or lead to the collapse of the sea bed, all leading to a rise in the atmospheric temperature.
Across countries, private organizations, and public entities, Deep-sea mining is quickly catching on as a leading candidate for a rapid transition to clean energy. The potential benefits are plentiful, including providing a brand new source of metals, providing income to states, industries, and people, and releasing less CO2 than land mining.
But with all these benefits aside, the poorly understood environmental impacts could potentially cause more harm than good, and it should be approached with the utmost responsibility and respect.
Firstly, research and development should be strengthened and deployed by international agencies and local entities alike. Research could generate and synthesize high-quality scientific data and help fill knowledge gaps while fostering better decision-making and environmental management. A global regulatory capacity must be determined to ensure the protection of the marine environment, and regulations must be developed transparently and inclusively, as not to duplicate past mistakes of other harmful mining practices.
According to the Facts and Factors market research report, the Global Renewable Energy Market is expected to grow from USD 1089 Million in 2019 to reach USD 1911 Million by 2026, at 8.3% annual CAGR. That growth will be supported by minerals and metals coming from various resources. It is our responsibility to make sure that the next mining industry to arise will be sustainable, accountable, and transparent while it supports the global energy transition. If new practices are not inserted in advance, it could very well lead to another climate catastrophe - one that the earth will not be able to contain.
The writer is an entrepreneur and investor,leading sustainability-driven companies in Africa and the Middle East