Over the next 30 years the global population is set to expand by two billion people. That’s double the current populations of North, Central and South America combined.
This will put a huge strain on the mineral resources we extract from our earth – in particular, metals like nickel, manganese, cobalt and copper.
If everyone is to benefit from economic progress – and not just those living in mature economies – enormous quantities of these metals will be needed. Far more than we can get from existing mines, even with recycling.
Without these resources, there can be no equitable economic development.
Without these resources there can be no transition to clean energy.
But extracting metal from our planet comes at a cost. Often rainforests have to be cleared, mountains flattened, communities displaced and indefensible amounts of waste – much of it toxic – generated.
What if we had a choice?
This is the story of seabed minerals – the vast reserves of metal lying on the ocean floor.
It’s a story about choices and trade-offs. It’s a story about science, engineering and ingenuity.
And it’s a story about international law and politics.
Prosperity for all in a world of finite resources
Since the industrial revolution, energy has been central to almost everything we do.
Economic progress has been powered mostly by coal, oil, and gas.
And most of us have benefitted.
Global standards of living are at an all-time high; the UN’s ambition of ending poverty by 2030 looks to be achievable; and advances in healthcare and technology mean our wellbeing and quality of life have – despite the events of 2020 – never been so good.
But it has come at a tremendous environmental cost.
Unsustainable quantities of carbon have been released into the atmosphere, causing global warming, extreme weather events and the acidification of our oceans.
With the world’s population expected to increase by two billion in the next 30 years, we are running out of time to find a way for everyone to achieve the standard of living they want while also meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Meeting the twin challenges of urbanised population growth and climate change has never been more urgent.
Across our planet, national governments are trying to find solutions.
And not a moment too soon.
The good news is that growth is not infinite. The global population is forecast to plateau later this century and may even start to decline.
The goal of a circular economy – where resources are constantly recycled and reused – is achievable, but we need a lot more metal in the system first, meaning we will need to find ways of bridging the gap between the world as it is now and the future we want.
We will need to build the equivalent of New York every 11 weeks to meet demand for urban infrastructure.
According to the UN, the number of city dwellers will increase from 4.2 billion today to 7.3 billion by the end of the century.
The global population is not just growing in size, it’s getting richer. The Brookings Institution estimates that 140 million people are joining the middle classes annually.
To support this level of growth, enough urban infrastructure will need to be built to accommodate a population equivalent to that of New York City every eleven weeks between now and the end of the century.
This will put unmanageable pressure on already strained mineral resources
That’s a real challenge because high-grade and easily accessible mineral deposits on land are depleting fast, which means we’ll need to sink new mines in increasingly remote and environmentally sensitive locations to keep up with demand.
That means cutting down millions of acres of forest, including rainforests.
It means displacing indigenous peoples and other communities.
It means creating mountains of waste to reach and process the metals buried in the ore beneath.
It means increased pollution of ground water, rivers, estuaries and coastal waters.
It means biodiversity loss.
And, it means using more and more carbon intensive energy to access the increasingly hard-to-reach deposits.
Clean energy technologies are metal-intensive
Wind and sun are alluring alternatives to fossil fuels, providing infinite, affordable energy with no emissions, but that doesn’t mean they come at no cost to the environment.
While they may seem to be gifts from nature, converting sunshine and wind into useable energy requires a new global infrastructure – and we’ve barely started to build it.
The world needs millions more wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicle batteries and other energy storage devices – and they all rely on a number of critical metals.
Clean energy technologies are becoming increasingly efficient and affordable, but we can’t escape the fact that we are going to need a colossal amount of metal to build them in the volumes we need.
The demand for metals is rising
The World Bank lists aluminium, cobalt, copper, iron ore, lead, lithium, nickel, manganese, platinum, rare earth metals, silver, steel, titanium and zinc as critical for green technology.
These minerals have been mined on land for years, but the world will need to increase production by an order of magnitude in the coming decades if there is to be any chance of decarbonising the planet and keeping climate change in check.
The World Bank estimates that we will need over three billion tonnes of critical metals to deploy the necessary wind, solar and energy storage technologies required to limit climate change to below 2°C.
Similarly, the Institute for Sustainable Futures calculates that in a scenario where global temperature rise is limited to less than 1.5 degrees, demand for cobalt will be 423% of known reserves by 2050.
For nickel it will be 136% and for lithium 280%.
This is just what is needed for renewable energy and storage. The increase in the quantity of metals required for the necessary infrastructure will have a profound impact on global demand.
To put this in context, electric vehicle production is projected to increase from 5 million today to 245 million by 2030, more than 30 times above today’s level. (There are almost a billion passenger cars on the road today and according to some estimates that could reach two billion by 2040).
Electric vehicles use at least four times the amount of metals found in a petrol/diesel car (see right).
An electric vehicle with a 75KWh battery needs 56 kg of nickel, 12 kg of manganese, 7 kg of cobalt and 85 kg of copper for electric wiring.
It’s little wonder that the European Union has pledged to build a complete supply chain for critical raw materials. More than 200 companies, governments and research organisations have been brought together to form an alliance, with the goal of securing the raw materials needed to meet the EU’s clean energy transition and digital transformation ambitions.
Could recycling be the answer?
It is sometimes argued that we can recycle our way to a circular economy – one in which existing stocks of resources satisfy all our needs.
In the long term that may be true, but the recycling rates for metal are already considerable – around 50 per cent for copper and 60 per cent for nickel. These rates can only be increased by improving several aspects of the value chain, for example product design to ease disassembly and improved recycling technologies.
Even if recycling rates continued increasing, there would still be a need for new metals since resources are locked up in use for years – sometimes decades – at a time when demand is rising.
For example, the metal in an offshore wind turbine starting its service life in 2020 might not be available for recycling until 2045. The same principle applies to PV solar panels, EV batteries and other energy storage devices.
And all the while the global population is growing and urbanising, meaning that demand for everything from the copper in power cables to the nickel in stainless steel utensils just keeps on rising.
According to the OECD, 27 billion tonnes of material resources were extracted to meet global demand in 1970. By 2017 that figure had grown to 89 billion tonnes – a 330% increase. The OECD predicts that up to 167 billion tonnes of materials could be extracted in 2060 – six times the 1970 total.
Recycling, efficiency improvements, and the adoption of new technologies can all act as brakes on the growth in demand, but the simple truth is there is not nearly enough material in circulation to satisfy our current and future requirements.
Might there be other sources available?
How can we meet this epic spike in metal demand in an environmentally, economically and socially responsible way?
Part of the solution may lie at the bottom of the ocean.
Between 1872 and 1876, the Royal Navy survey vessel HMS Challenger was exploring the North Pacific Ocean when it discovered metal-rich rocks lying on the seabed floor.
We now know that there are trillions of these rocks – or more accurately, nodules – lying 4,500 metres beneath the ocean’s surface in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a deep-sea abyss located between Hawaii and Mexico.
The CCZ covers 4.5 million square km, about one per cent of the world’s oceans.
These potato-sized nodules, formed over millions of years, contain precisely the metals the world needs to meet the twin challenges of urbanised population growth and clean energy transition.
In fact, it’s estimated that CCZ nodules contains 1.2 times more manganese, 1.8 times more nickel and 3.4 times more cobalt than all known land-based reserves combined.
This was a truly remarkable discovery.
On land, these metals are never found together; multiple mines are needed to obtain them.
Furthermore, to reach the ore on land, often a top layer of earth has to be removed. This requires explosives, drilling and creating mountains of waste.
Some of this waste – a slurry of mud and rock known as tailings – ends up being disposed of at sea either directly or indirectly via rivers.
By contrast, oceanic nodules lie loose on the floor of the seabed.
The CCZ is located in the central Pacific Ocean, in international waters. As such, no country has jurisdiction and instead the area is governed by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an intergovernmental organization comprising 167 member states and the European Union. The ISA is mandated under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to organise, regulate and control all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area.
Currently there is no commercial activity; operations are at the exploratory phase. Over the last seven years the ISA has been developing the rules, regulations and procedures for commercial activity. It is a consultative and transparent process and, as of September 2020, the Authority had conducted nine stakeholder consultations. Any contractors wishing to undertake operations in the international deep seabed area must comply with these regulations.
Over the last five decades, researchers have explored the possibility of collecting and processing these nodules for their mineral wealth.
Millions of dollars have been invested in developing autonomous deep-sea vehicles that can collect the nodules under the extreme pressures found at these great depths.
Scientists and engineers have come together to explore ways of creating a viable seabed minerals industry while mitigating the environmental impact of doing so.
Natural resources within national jurisdiction are controlled by the country in whose jurisdiction they are found, but with seabed minerals outside national jurisdiction a decision was taken decades ago to do things differently.
It was decided that where the ocean’s mineral wealth (solid, liquid or gas) lies at or under the seabed beyond national jurisdiction, it should be considered the ‘common heritage of mankind’, meaning any relevant activity, including commercial exploitation, must be carried out for the benefit of all humankind, with particular consideration for the needs and interests of developing countries.
It’s not surprising that some people are concerned about the prospect of disturbing the ocean floor – especially as we are still learning about the creatures that live in this habitat. The seabed minerals industry is doing its utmost to get things right from the outset.
We all want to protect the marine environment, including marine life and biodiversity, and to avoid disrupting ecosystems that could be critical for the functions and health of our planet.
Regulators, contractors, engineers, marine biologists and ocean scientists engaged in seabed mineral research all share this goal.
It’s probably the first time that an ecosystem will be researched in such an intensive way before we actually start impacting it.
The precautionary approach
Indeed, it is hard to think of any industry has been so thoroughly studied before it even exists – the gold standard of what is broadly known as the ‘precautionary approach’.
Currently there is no commercial activity in the areas beyond national jurisdiction.
And there won’t be unless necessary measures have been taken by the ISA to ensure effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects which may arise from seabed mining; that the benefits outweigh the risks. The contractors are committed to this, and so is the regulator, the International Seabed Authority, a body established in 1994 through the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The truth is, it is impossible to extract natural resources from the land or sea without causing some degree of environmental harm. And yet, we urgently need new sources of these metals if we are to secure a safe, clean, sustainable future for all.
We have to face up to that reality, consider the alternatives and choose to act responsibly.
More research needs to be done.
Right now, scientists and engineers are exploring the seafloor, conducting mineral resource assessments and investing in research to understand and minimise the potential effects of commercial-scale activity.
With every exploratory mission to the deep sea, more information, more samples and more data is obtained; more knowledge is gained.
This expanding knowledge base allows scientists to establish what is known as an ‘environmental baseline’ – a kind of inventory of what is down there right now.
Unlike on land, these are not lush habitats. “Lush” is a word often used to describe, for example, rainforests, mangroves, and coral reefs.
The abyssal plains of the CCZ are dark and food-poor. But they are nonetheless complex ecosystems, home to a high diversity of often small life forms specially adapted to the deep-sea environment: low temperature, high pressure, and little food. Their role in ocean health is still poorly understood. That is why research is so important and why a precautionary approach is critical.
Scientists and engineers are working side by side to understand the deep-sea environment and mitigate the risks, such as creating set-aside areas that will remain untouched by mining and developing engineering solutions that can minimise the plumes of sediment created by nodule collection.
Plume modelling … can be used to help drive the design of a collector vehicle
With this improved knowledge, contractors will constantly adjust their approach, making decisions that will protect the deep-sea ecosystem.
Some campaigners are calling for a complete halt on all operations, citing lack of knowledge of the deep ocean as the principal reason.
We agree that we need more information about the impact of collecting minerals from the seafloor before commercial operations can begin, but a complete moratorium cannot deliver that outcome.
Quite the opposite.
Far from creating time and space for more research to be conducted, stopping operations would act as a disincentive to invest in deep sea exploration.
Rather than increasing our knowledge, a moratorium would make it much more difficult to add to our knowledge about the deep sea, the species that live there, and the role they play in the planet’s functions.
Society is facing some extremely tough choices. Rational, evidence-based decisions need to be made with the entire planet in mind. That is only possible if we have the necessary data.
Inaction is not the solution to this pressing problem. Mitigating climate change will require tremendous amounts of minerals and metals and there is only so much time left to determine how best to source them.
If the seafloor can help provide the metals we need for a better world, and if it can do that in a more environmentally responsible way than the alternative, it makes no sense to stop exploring that option.
Continue the research; support the science; build our sustainable future.