A deep sea vehicle attached to a ship
Deep sea mining provides important sources of materials essential for EV transition, yet scientists remain concerned about the release of carbon from such activity © Richard Baron

Nick Eyre, Professor of Energy and Climate Policy at the University of Oxford, remembers the moment when he fully grasped the future of energy generation. “The day I realised it was changing was when it became clear that it’s cheaper to generate electricity from solar than from oil in the Gulf,” he says.

Still — as he, and others, are finding — it is taking longer to convince public opinion, and corporate interests, in different parts of the world. Attitudes towards oil and gas exploration off the UK, and towards deep-sea mining in the Pacific, both suggest the arguments are yet to be won.

“Attitudes are actually lagging behind,” suggests Eyre, of the debate in the UK. “Some newspapers are reporting that renewables are expensive but actually, they’re not. It’s a cheaper way of generating energy than gas or coal.” According to the International Energy Agency’s ‘World Energy Outlook 2020’, solar power is now “the cheapest source of electricity in history”. The report revealed that solar power is 20 to 50 per cent cheaper than previously believed.

Many governments internationally, including those of France, Ireland, Spain, Denmark and Belize, are legislating for a transition away from traditional sources of energy extraction, by banning the production of some or all fossil fuels after set dates. However, there is no international consensus on the transition. In July, the UK government announced that it was granting “hundreds” of new oil and gas licenses in the North Sea.

Nick Eyre

Commenting on the UK’s continuation with oil and gas extraction, Eyre says: “There’s a worry that this gets sucked into a culture war. There’s no logical reason for it to be. Whether you’re leftwing or rightwing, having a liveable planet makes sense.”

According to the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), renewable energy is not only a way to cut energy costs, it is also a key way to achieve essential decarbonisation. If we don’t drastically change how we get our energy, says Steve Trent, chief executive of EJF “atmospheric carbon will continue to increase, surpassing levels not seen in the past 3 million years”.

However, a new disagreement over energy transition recently emerged in Kingston, Jamaica — one that has stirred division between adherents of decarbonisation and electrification. In July 2023, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) met to discuss deep sea mining for polymetallic nodules — potato-sized mineral deposits on the deep seabed that contain metals such as cobalt and manganese that are essential for making the batteries in electric vehicles.

But, while deep sea mining may provide a new source of materials essential for the EV transition, scientists have raised serious concerns about the potential release of carbon from such activity. An open letter signed by 700 scientists calling for a pause to mining the seabed named “uncertain impacts on carbon sequestration dynamics and deep-ocean carbon storage”, among other concerns.

Nevertheless, applications for deep sea mining are now open because, in mid 2021, the government of the island of Nauru, partnering with The Metals Company, a Canadian mining start-up, triggered a rule which gave the ISA two years to develop regulations around exploration in this uncharted territory.

Nothing will happen just yet — during the Kingston meeting, in July, the ISA failed to agree on new regulations and so decided to delay mining for another year. The Metals Company has already announced its intention to submit an application next year, though.

Alanna Smith, director of the Te Ipukarea Society in the Cook Islands and an attendee at the ISA meetings, says: “A consensus is needed by the entire Assembly for anything to be approved, making for a real clash of the titans between pro-mining states and those wanting to simply have a discussion about how to protect our ocean.”

Polymetallic nodules on the sea floor
Polymetallic nodules contain critical metals such as cobalt and manganese used in the batteries of electric vehicles

Opposition to deep sea mining has been widespread, with government and industry leaders joining scientists to call for a moratorium — or an outright ban. Some 21 states — including France, Canada, Spain and Germany — have all taken permanent or temporary positions against deep sea mining.

Even so, The Metal Company argues that deep sea mining is necessary to facilitate the green transition, as so much of these rare metals will be needed to replace internal combustion engines with batteries and electric motors.

Steve Trent of EJF disagrees with this view, however. “There is no place for deep-sea mining on the path to a more sustainable, equitable future,” he states. “We can get there through investing in recycling, new battery technologies, and a circular economy, leaving the deep ocean to keep supporting us all”.

Many industrial companies agree with him. Some have signed an open statement calling for a moratorium on deep sea mining until the consequences are better understood. Among the signatories are BMW, Volkswagen, Google, Philips and Samsung.

Two people on kayaks with a ship in the background. One of the persons is holding a sign that says ‘Stop Deep Sea Mining, Greenpeace’
Greenpeace activists from New Zealand and Mexico confront the deep sea mining vessel © Gustavo Graf Maldonado/Reuters

Trent says that “as international opposition to deep-sea mining grows, more and more companies and investors are rightly backing out, realising that the risks are too high and the damage would be enormous.”

That damage may include the release of more carbon stored in deep sea sediment. According to a report released by EJF, the deep sea is a crucial carbon sink, with the ocean absorbing over a quarter of all human-generated CO₂ emissions.

Trent and others suggest that recycling these materials could be the greener solution. A 2018 report by The European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform suggests that, by 2030, at least €408mn could be recovered from cobalt, nickel, aluminium and lithium in electric vehicle batteries.

He is aware these changes need to happen fast — but he is hopeful. “There is a generational shift. Young people are seeing that it is their future. Climate change is no longer a future worry, but a current reality.”

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