Interest in the exploitation of deep sea mineral resources located in areas beyond national jurisdiction has grown significantly in recent years. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which is tasked with organizing, regulating and controlling all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area, has already issued 29 exploration licenses and is currently developing a regulatory framework (the so-called "Mining Code"). The international debate around deep seabed mining has focused on its technical feasibility, profitability, and potential environmental impacts - rather than the question of whether deep seabed mining should take place at all and which development pathways could otherwise be explored. These questions are the subject of a new study commissioned by the Heinrich Böll Foundation: "Towards a Contemporary Vision for the Global Seafloor - Implementing the Common Heritage of Mankind".
The International Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) states that marine areas beyond national jurisdiction and their resources are the "common heritage of mankind". Accordingly, any activities in these areas must be carried out "for the benefit of mankind as a whole". It remains unclear how this legal principle could be implemented in a manner that serves the well-being of mankind and facilitates not only the equitable distribution of the financial and economic proceeds of marine mineral exploitation, but also the transfer of scientific knowledge and technology. While the Convention on the Law of the Sea proposes that "a system of compensation or other measures of economic adjustment assistance for developing States" be established in order to compensate for the lead enjoyed by industrialised countries, a narrow interpretation of this benefit sharing mechanism has been applied in negotiations, focussing debate substantially on the royalty rate payable by contracting parties.
Is deep seabed mining consistent with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?
The world has changed dramatically since the Convention on the Law of the Sea was negotiated in the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, declining ocean health as a result of the illegal or unregulated exploitation of marine resources has led to numerous regional and global agreements to protect the environment, which have been incorporated into the global goals for sustainable development adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015. It is becoming ever more apparent that gains in global prosperity ultimately come at the expense of the environment and harbour incalculable long-term risks.
The new study considers whether the extraction of mineral resources in one of the world's least known, probably most fragile and largely untouched ecosystems is compatible with the goals of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is vital, the study argues, that the transition to a renewable energy supply does not come at the cost of inflicting irreparable damage to marine ecosystems and their functioning for society as a whole. In particular, our responsibility towards future generations should be given more weight in decision-making around deep seabed mining. This aligns with the earliest definitions of sustainability, which proposed that societies should meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own.
Public consultation on deep seabed mining is vital
The study aims to raise awareness of the fact that marine areas beyond national jurisdiction, which comprise roughly half of the surface of the oceans, are a global commons that must be managed responsibly in order to safeguard long-term global well-being. The researchers propose that the international community, including all sectors of civil society and the public sphere, be given the opportunity to debate before negotiations on resource extraction continue, so that a contemporary and long-term vision for the implementation of the common heritage of mankind can be developed. The researchers call for a shift away from national priorities and special interests to a focus on aligning activities with the United Nations' global Sustainable Development Goals.