The future of the world’s largest, mostly unspoiled environment is in jeopardy.
It’s unusual for a little country like Nauru to have such influence over world events. But, for various reasons, this once-in-a-lifetime occurrence is currently taking place. If Nauru gets its way, massive bulldozers might be descending on the world’s largest, primarily unspoiled ecosystem—the seafloor—within the next five years. Hundreds of marine scientists have signed a statement stating that this would be an ecological calamity with “irreversible damage on multigenerational periods.”
Nauru, a ten-thousand-strong nation that sits on an eight-square-mile island northeast of Papua New Guinea, owes its disproportionate power on an obscure paragraph of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. The majority of the seabed—roughly a hundred million square miles—is deemed “common heritage of mankind” under UNCLOS. The International Seabed Authority, situated in Kingston, Jamaica, is in charge of managing this vast area.
In the shape of dark lumps termed polymetallic nodules, large areas of the seafloor are covered with potentially mineable—and perhaps incredibly valuable—metals. Companies have been attempting to figure out how to mine these nodules for decades, but they’ve only been able to undertake exploratory work so far. Permits for actual mining will not be issued until the ISA develops a set of regulations to oversee the process, which it has been working on for more than two decades.
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The complexities are still present. Companies must partner with a country that is a party to UNCLOS to apply for a mining permit. (Most countries are, but not the United States, which is noteworthy.) This is when Nauru enters the picture. It is investing in a company named Nauru Ocean Resources, which is a subsidiary of the Metals Company, a Canadian corporation. The Metals Company plans to mine the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a nodule-rich region of the Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico. Nauru told the ISA in June, not long before the Metals Company went public as a “special purpose acquisition company,” that it was invoking the “two-year rule.” The rule—which is actually part of an annex to UNCLOS—states that the ISA “must” finalize the regulations within two years “if a request is made by a State.” Given that Nauru has been invoking the law for six months, the job will only take eighteen months to complete.
The ISA conducted a meeting at its headquarters in Kingston in mid-December. Many countries did not send delegates due to covid, and those that did complain to the two-year timetable, claiming that it could not be met responsibly. Nonetheless, in a news statement dated December 14th, Michael Lodge, the ISA’s secretary-general, stated that the authority will move forward: “We have a hectic agenda in the following two years, but I am convinced that our single purpose will enable us to make the expected progress.”
The initiative to mine the seabed has been described as critical to reducing carbon emissions by both Nauru and the Metals Company. Clean-energy technologies, like electric-car batteries, require metals, particularly cobalt, that are found in relatively high concentrations in nodules, at least in their current state. “Nauru is part of a pioneering effort that could soon fuel the world’s green economy,” says a government-produced video. In the same video, Gerard Barron, the CEO of the Metals Company, adds, “We’re on a journey for a more sustainable future.”
However, marine biologists say that the risks of deep-sea mining exceed the benefits. They point out that because the ocean floor is so challenging to reach, most of its inhabitants are likely yet unknown, and their importance to the ocean’s functioning is unclear. Meanwhile, they claim that seabed mining, which would take place in utter darkness thousands of feet beneath the surface, will be nearly difficult to oversee. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which keeps track of endangered species and creates the “red list,” asked for a global moratorium on deep-sea mining in September. In a statement, the group expressed concern that “biodiversity loss will be unavoidable if deep-sea mining is allowed to proceed” and that “the ramifications for ocean ecosystem function are unclear.”
Critics claim that the ISA’s entire structure is biased favor mining. Fees from corporations performing exploratory work and contributions from member states are used to fund the organization. Many member states appear to have stopped paying; according to a report published in 2020, around sixty countries owe at least two years’ worth of contributions. If seabed mining proceeds, the ISA is anticipated to earn a portion of the income. The chance that a conflict of interest appears to be rather straightforward.
Nauru, on the other hand, has a lengthy history of shady commercial dealings. The island was drained of most of its phosphate reserves in the early twentieth century, reducing a large portion of it to a wasteland. Nauru, which had previously been managed by Australia, gained independence in 1968. The country invested its wealth, which was still derived from phosphate mining, in many losing businesses. It is now relying on seabed mining. Should the rest of the world let Nauru set the pace for determining how the seabed will be managed? The question appears to be self-evident. The plan to carve up the ocean floor into mining claims has been dubbed the “largest land grab in human history” by acclaimed oceanographer Sylvia Earle. Nonetheless, until many other countries decide to focus on the issue, this appears to be what will happen.
In a recent interview, Duncan Currie, an international lawyer who advises the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, another group that has advocated for a ban on seabed mining, said, “Countries have not really come to grips with the truth, which is that this two-year rule is forcing their hand.” “And so, by July 2023, they’ll have to decide whether to go down what is essentially a one-way route toward deep-sea mining at the expense of the marine environment, or whether to continue to take a careful approach. And, regrettably, it’s an either-or scenario.”