Companies including Patagonia, Scania, Triodos Bank and Volkswagen Group have recently joined a movement that is calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. They are among brands that have pledged to keep such materials linked to deep-sea mining out of their supply chains. The companies pulling rank include BMW, Google, Philips, the battery maker Samsung SDI, and Volvo, all of which have emphasized the need to explore alternative approaches to deep-sea mining. These companies have proposed solutions that include the development of sustainable land mining practices and a transition toward using materials that can be a part of a more closed-loop system.
“Volkswagen is continuously working on sustainable mobility solutions for future generations,” Volkswagen’s Dr. Frauke Eßer said in a statement. “This includes high standards for responsibly shaped raw material supply chains. Seabed mining poses severe environmental risks that we take very seriously, and that drives us to support the call for a moratorium.”
The deployment of clean energy technologies, including electric vehicles (EVs), solar photovoltaics, wind energy and energy storage systems has in turn sparked high demand for minerals that are often difficult to find, including copper, cobalt, nickel, lithium and manganese. For example, a typical electric vehicle requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional vehicle, and onshore wind needs nine times the amount of materials than gas-fired power plants. Surging demand could create shortages, yet there are rich reserves of cobalt, copper, zinc, nickel, gold, manganese, and other rare earth minerals in ocean floor deposits.
“Humans need to continue rapidly transitioning to renewable energy sources, but in a responsible manner,” Hans Cole, Patagonia’s head of environmental activism, said in a statement. “No matter what reasons we hear for mining the bottom of the ocean, we need to recognize that it would create grave ecological threats and risks disturbing carbon locked away in the deep, with limited opportunities for proper oversight. In our pursuit of renewable energy, we need to ensure that any essential mining is done in the most ecologically responsible way, which means no deep-sea mining.”
The long-term ecological impacts of the practice are still largely unknown, but some scientists have voiced concerns over how deep-sea mining could have an impact on the global carbon cycle. Those fears are based on the fact that oceans are profound carbon sinks and can help absorb an estimated 25 percent of carbon emissions from human activities.
According to the companies that are calling for a moratorium, “Deep-sea ecosystems have experienced little disturbance from human activities up to now, and we know they are likely to have low levels of resilience. Given the slow pace of deep-sea processes, destroyed habitats are unlikely to recover within human timescales.”
Of course, mining on land presents its own range of environmental and social issues. For example, an estimated 70 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where many of the mines are plagued by human rights violations.
Although deep-sea mining is not currently occurring, evidence suggests that it if permitted, could begin as soon as 2025 or 2026. Despite considerable international support, there is no such ban currently in place. As a result, corporations are now feeling the pressure to step in order to safeguard the oceans.
In addition to committing to not buying minerals linked to deep-sea mining, companies can also develop products that minimize the need to mine new sources of minerals. For example, the Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt announced that it has produced the first-ever lithium-ion battery cell with 100 percent recycled nickel, manganese and cobalt. The company plans to expand its recycling capabilities to process 125,000 tons of batteries per year.
Further, there is plenty of work that automakers and industry stakeholders can do to create more sustainable vehicles and thereby reduce the demand for conflict materials. For example, not all EV and utility storage batteries contain cobalt, an expensive, rare, and toxic mineral found in the cathodes of many batteries. In addition, lithium iron phosphate batteries are cobalt-free, more economical, and already in use in many of Tesla’s EVs. Further, Samsung SDI has adopted a cobalt-free battery strategy.
Despite continued advances in the alternatives to these minerals and recycling efforts, companies that are proposing deep-sea mining say that the materials are crucial to promote the clean energy movement. Nevertheless, the industry can’t ignore this alliance of corporations that are calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
“It is fantastic to see Volkswagen Group, Triodos Bank, and Patagonia supporting ocean health for future generations by taking action on deep-sea mining and committing to keeping minerals from the ocean floor out of their products,” said Farah Obaidullah, Global Campaigner with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition in a statement. “We hope this will inspire more companies to take up the baton and defend this vital life-sustaining ecosystem by saying ‘no’ to deep-sea mining.”
Image credit: Jim Beaudoin via Unsplash
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.