Germany calls for ‘precautionary pause’ before deep-sea mining industry starts

Berlin urges International Seabed Authority to prioritise nature as it debates rules and warns seabed mining may ‘destroy ecosystems’
2022-11-02 06:15

Germany has called for a pause in the controversial deep-sea mining industry, saying not enough is known about the likely impacts of digging up the ocean floor for metals.

While other nations, including Spain and New Zealand, have previously called for a temporary halt to any exploitation of deep-sea metals, Germany, the world’s fourth biggest economy, is the most significant nation to voice its opposition to date. The country holds two of the 22 licences for exploration of the seabed.

Scientists have warned that the damage to ecosystems from mining nickel, cobalt and other metals on the seabed would be “dangerous”, “reckless” and “irreversible”.

Germany’s call for a “precautionary pause” in the emerging industry, which has not yet begun mining for commercial purposes, follows demands by Spain and New Zealand to halt any exploitation of seabed metals until further research on the environmental impact has been carried out, and until regulations with strict environmental standards are in place.

In June, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, called for laws to stop deep-sea mining from going ahead, but did not call for a pause.

The German carmakers BMW and Volkswagen are among companies that have declared they will not buy metals mined from the seabed.

In a statement to the International Seabed Authority, the UN-affiliated agency responsible for regulating deep-sea mining, which is meeting at its headquarters in the Jamaican capital, Kingston, the German representative said: “The German government here wants to underline its view that current knowledge and available science is insufficient to approve deep seabed mining until further notice.”

The country’s environment minister, Steffi Lemke, said: “Deep-sea mining would put even more pressure on the oceans and irreparably destroy ecosystems. That is why, as a first step, we are calling for a pause to prevent any rash decisions at the expense of the marine environment.

“Together with our international partners, we now have the opportunity to avert another looming environmental crisis and prioritise nature conservation and its exploration. Only a healthy ocean will help us fight the biodiversity and climate crisis.”

Matthew Gianni, co-founder of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, who is observing the negotiations over mining regulations in Jamaica this week, described the German statement as “significant” as it signalled opposition to any exploitation of the deep sea before sufficient environmental regulations were in place.

It could change the dynamics of the Kingston meeting, he said. “They are sending a political signal of their opposition to any country putting in an application to mine under the two-year rule before regulations are adopted,” said Gianni.

The “two-year rule” is a legal clause that in effect gives the ISA council two years to finalise the rulebook governing deep-sea mining as soon as a country announces its intent to start seabed mining. The rule was triggered in July 2021 by the Pacific island nation of Nauru, and means exploitation of the seabed could commence by July 2023 even if environmental or economic regulations have not been agreed.

Till Seidensticker, Greenpeace Germany’s marine expert, described the German statement as a “good first step” towards effective protection of the deep sea.

“It’s good news that the German government is calling for the precautionary principle to be upheld for the deep sea, joining countries like Spain and New Zealand in doing so,” he said.

“The precautionary pause that is now being demanded is a good first step towards the effective protection of the seas.”