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Navigating Europe’s mineral insecurity: The geopolitical challenges of deep-sea mining

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As Europe navigates environmental and energy insecurities, the looming scarcity of critical minerals like cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel and rare earths poses a significant hurdle to its energy and digital transitions. These minerals are indispensable for low-carbon technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicle batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, with demand projected to surge by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The focus has turned to marine mineral deposits, notably in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean, covering 4.5 million km²—equivalent to the size of the European Union. This area is rich in polymetallic nodules, coveted for their high concentrations of nickel, cobalt, copper, and manganese. Despite its potential, deep-sea mining faces formidable challenges:

  1. Technical and financial hurdles: Extraction costs range from $1 to $5 million per vehicle, alongside uncertainties in operational and environmental restoration expenses.
  2. Environmental concerns: Potential ecological impacts include biodiversity loss, ecosystem disruption, and pollution, posing challenges in assessment and mitigation.
  3. Regulatory complexities: Most mining opportunities lie beyond national jurisdictions, governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The International Seabed Authority (ISA), mandated to regulate activities in these international waters, has been grappling since 2014 to establish a comprehensive mining code. Despite efforts, finalizing regulations is projected to extend beyond 2025, reflecting ongoing geopolitical negotiations and divergent national interests.

The geopolitical intersection:

  • High seas geopolitics: The high seas are pivotal for debates on navigation rights, exclusive economic zones, and strategic defense interests, underscoring tensions over sovereignty in international waters.
  • Mining geopolitics: Major mining nations like China and Japan vie for dominance in deep-sea resources, debating between exploitation opportunities and environmental conservation.
  • Climate geopolitics: Deep-sea resources are entwined with global climate agendas, balancing resource extraction with ecological preservation as critical to sustainable development.
  • Commons geopolitics: The deep seabed, designated as the “common heritage of mankind,” echoes the governance dilemmas of shared resources akin to Antarctica, prompting calls for conservation measures amidst competing national claims.

The role of ISA:

The ISA, comprising 167 member states including the EU, plays a central role in shaping deep-sea mining policies. Tasked with both environmental stewardship and economic regulation, ISA’s dual mandate often intersects with challenges of transparency, scientific rigor, and financial sustainability. Critics highlight concerns over ISA’s funding model, which ties revenue to licensing fees and contractor fees, potentially compromising its impartiality in balancing regulatory oversight with environmental protection.

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Moving forward:

As negotiations continue within ISA, stakeholders grapple with navigating the delicate balance between resource exploitation and sustainable management of the deep seabed. The outcome will not only shape global mining practices but also influence broader geopolitical dynamics and environmental governance frameworks in the years ahead.

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