While most of the Pacific Islands have escaped the worst of COVID-19, the cornerstone of their economy, tourism, has taken a big hit. By June 2020, visitor arrivals to Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu had ceased altogether, with borders closed and even internal displacement. limit. In Fiji, where tourism generated around 40% of GDP before the pandemic, the 19% contracted saving in 2020.
An economical alternative can be found just offshore. The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) is a 4.5 million square kilometer deep water trench in the central Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico. On its seabed are rocks the size of a potato called polymetallic nodules which contain nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese. These were formed over the centuries by the accumulation of iron and manganese around debris such as seashells or shark teeth.
It is estimated that there are approximately 21 billion tonnes manganese nodules in this single trench, and the demand for these metals is likely to skyrocket as the world accelerates the development of batteries for electric vehicles and renewable electricity grids.
While much of the CCZ lies beneath the high seas where no state has control, it is adjacent to the exclusive economic zones of several Pacific island states, including the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and Tonga. Due to a lack of means to search for the metals themselves, these states have sponsored mining companies to subscribe to licenses with the International Seabed Authority (ISA), responsible for the sustainable management of the seabed in international waters. This would allow these companies to explore the seabed and determine the likely viability of mining and its potential impact on the environment.
With so little knowledge about the biodiversity of this largely unexplored part of the ocean, it is difficult to accurately predict how deep sea mining will go. affect cash here. Environmental organizations and scientists have argued for a moratorium on mining until more research can be done.
Some Pacific Islanders, including the Alliance of Solwara Warriors, representing the indigenous communities of the Bismark and Solomon Seas in Papua New Guinea, protested the lack of information given to local communities on the potential impact of mining. In April 2021, civil society groups across the Pacific wrote to the UK government seeking support for a moratorium. Meanwhile, a former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, described deep-sea mining as “inevitableAnd urged companies to figure out how to do it safely.
But time is running out. Seven exploratory licenses are will expire in 2021, making it imperative either that a moratorium be adopted internationally or that the ISA adopts a legal framework to determine the conditions under which mining can take place.
From exploration to extraction
Work towards this framework has been underway since 2014. Despite this, the 168 countries in the ISA assembly have yet to agree on a code to regulate mining contracts. ISA’s ambition to reach a deal in 2020 has been derailed by the pandemic, and it is not clear whether the meetings will take place in 2021. It is likely that exploration contracts will expire in the meantime, increasing pressure on the ISA from mining companies and sponsoring states. at grant operating licenses. Exploration licenses are regulated by the ISA. Without an agreed code, extractive codes are not.
Even if a consensus were reached, it would be difficult to enforce environmental guarantees. Identifying responsibility for the source of any pollution or environmental damage is tricky when mining takes place in such deep waters. There are also few or no physical boundaries between one mining area and another. The effects of mining on different ecosystems and habitats may take time to manifest.
International consensus on a moratorium is also unlikely. Mining companies have invested a lot of money in developing technology to operate at these depths. They will want to see a return on this, and so will their investors. States that have sponsored mining contracts – including some Pacific islands – will want to reap the royalties paid to them promised.
Pacific island states face a dilemma. They are among the countries most vulnerable to climate change and therefore support strong actions. But unless alternatives are found, the developed world’s green transition is likely to accelerate demand for metals resting peacefully in the deeper parts of the ocean surrounding these islands. It will be the people here who bear the costs of the deep sea mining undertaken without sufficient precaution, not the electric car drivers in the north of the planet.