Deep-sea mining & the weight of debt
An interview with an economist of feminist climate finance encountering the world of seabed mining
The International Seabed Authority last week wrapped up its second part of the year’s deliberations on regulating deep-sea mining. The UN-established organization has less than a year to write the seabed mining code before Nauru and its sponsored contractor, Canada-based The Metals Company, plan to apply for a permit. The meetings took place at ISA headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica.
Mariama Williams grew up among Jamaica’s sugarcane plantations, not too far from what would become the ISA headquarters. For the last two decades, she has been teaching and advising governments on feminist economics. She has authored or edited four volumes on finance with a lens on gender. Her latest explores gender in climate finance, setting her up to be a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest chapter about investment and finance. One of its main findings is that global capital isn’t flowing where climate action needs it.
Climate research seemed too important to ignore. The financial and trade systems she had worked on before were man made. They could disappear or collapse, but they could also be rebuilt again. The climate, and humans’ relationship with it, couldn’t. She attended several COP meetings as part of the South Centre, an intergovernmental scientist group that supports global South countries with independent research.
More recently, Williams has become disenchanted with repetitive intergovernmental panels. Her interests drew her to the ocean. Policymakers have mostly looked the other way when it comes to the ‘blue economy’ and ocean climate action. Yet Jamaica, as one of the world’s 38 Small Island Developing States (SIDS), is on the frontline of the impacts of burning fossil fuels.
That brought her to the UN agency housed in her country and the industry that’s relying on other SIDS to deliver on its plan to save the climate. The Metals Company, as the company most strongly pushing to create this new industry, has partnered with three Pacific Island Nations to support its goal to mine the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Metals like nickel, manganese and cobalt will be sold to lithium-ion battery manufacturers, they say.
Expanding the fleet of electric vehicles could help end tailpipe emissions from traditional gas-powered ones. Anote Tong, former president of Kiribati, one of the nations that sponsor a mining license, has argued that Pacific Island Nations already do a great service for the world. They protect critical fisheries, ensuring they can sustain themselves, despite relentless and destructive fishing that serves faraway places. And yet, sea levels are rising and places like Kiribati may not exist within a generation. So, either Kiribati uses all the means at its disposal to prevent its destruction, or rich countries pay for climate losses and mitigation.
Williams has studied both deep-sea mining and the climate debt owed to vulnerable countries. Rich countries already struggle to pull together the promised $100 billion for low-income countries to mitigate impacts. The political will to pay for damages on top of that hasn’t solidified among rich nations.
Yet for her, the decision to support deep-sea mining should be more clear. The first time she learned of it, she had a “visceral, nonacademic, nonobjective” reaction. “I was aghast that the countries that were supposed to be the standard bearer for climate would be leading the discussion, making deals to destroy the ocean,” she said. Jamaica has seen destruction from bauxite miners in the aluminum industry, and she fears further ecosystem loss to the ocean. “Mining companies are mining companies.”
Research is growing about the potential impacts of mining the seabed on undersea life and the life that depends on it. But it doesn’t come close to the amount of baseline studies, forecasts, and technological testing that is required of similar industries. We know very little about the ecosystems that could be impacted, considering the deep sea is the largest biome on the planet, and the least explored by humans. The Metals Company, in an SEC filing, recognizes that its operations are certain to disturb wildlife, and there may not be enough information to say whether it’s more or less harmful than mining on land.
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In the day 10-day meeting in Kingston, these concerns and many more were raised by NGOs. Many were also concerned that they couldn’t raise these issues because civil society observers were limited to one representative and kept in a room separate from the country delegations.
Williams, who came to the deep-sea mining field through Fiji-based NGO Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), sees a glimmer of hope. Major companies have begun to take stances on mining. Volkswagen and BMW have declared that they will not use minerals from the deep sea in their products. Greenpeace, which hosted Williams in a press conference during the ISA meeting, unveiled a website ranking carmakers on their stances regarding minerals from the seabed. Ford, Tesla and General Motors – stuck at the bottom of the website’s ocean diagram – have yet to support a mining moratorium.
Williams connects the push for deep-sea mining to a persistent failure to create mechanisms that support small countries in dealing with powerful creditors, an issue that becomes more extreme with every crisis. Highly indebted countries are often at risk of making rash decisions. Williams says there is a need for governments to “accelerate and complete the work” on debt workout mechanisms.
In addition, climate financing that addresses losses and damages can relieve the burden on vulnerable countries to pay their way out of crisis. SIDS are at high risk of losing not only livelihoods or food security, but also sheer landmass. Rich countries have avoided paying a debt to countries experiencing climate catastrophes. This is the kind of payment that Anote Tong spoke of.
It’s unclear what progress was made at the ISA meeting last month, and what is left to negotiate before the ISA is required by its own bylaws to consider applications to mine. Meanwhile, country delegations have begun to advocate for slowing down the rush to write the regulations. Those include: Chile, Spain, France, Costa Rica, Monaco, Palau, Samoa, Fiji, and the Federated States of Micronesia.