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By Johnny Cassidy

The UK has publicly announced its support for a temporary halt on deep-sea mining, marking a significant change in its stance on the practice. This shift comes in response to mounting concerns from scientists and lawmakers regarding the potential environmental impacts of extracting metals from the seabed. The UK government has declared its endorsement of a suspension on sponsoring or supporting licenses for projects involving seabed mining until there is enough scientific evidence to evaluate its consequences.

This decision puts the UK in line with several other countries, including Brazil, France, and Germany, which have also called for a temporary pause in deep-sea mining activities. The collective goal is to gain a better understanding of the potential environmental effects before proceeding with such projects. In order to gather more scientific data and deepen the understanding of the impact, the UK will establish a network of experts, as announced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey emphasised the importance of scientific expertise in comprehending the potential consequences and confirmed that the UK would not support or sponsor any exploitation licenses during this period.

The UK’s previous position on deep-sea mining had faced criticism from various quarters, including the opposition Labour party, scientists, and a cross-party group of parliamentarians. They accused the government of being slow to recognize the environmental risks associated with seabed mineral extraction. This action is deemed “precautionary and conditional,” reflecting a careful approach to assessing the situation.

The International Seabed Authority, responsible for regulating deep-sea mining in international waters, convened in July, but a decision on allowing production to proceed was not reached. However, the 168 member nations agreed to discuss a potential moratorium during next year’s negotiations.

While the UK had previously communicated that it would not sponsor or support deep-sea mining exploitation licenses without adequate scientific evidence, Monday’s announcement marks the first public declaration of this position. Environmental activists argue that a moratorium is imperative to prevent irreversible damage to ancient ecosystems that could result from this practice. Duncan Currie, a lawyer at the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, praised the UK’s strengthened stance, stating that “it’s encouraging to see the UK has now strengthened their position and are saying no to deep-sea mining.”

Proponents of deep-sea mining argue that extracting metals from the seabed could be an environmentally responsible alternative to land-based mining. This approach has the potential to reduce the west’s reliance on China for critical minerals, thereby addressing concerns about supply chain vulnerabilities. However, even with the moratorium on deep-sea mining, exploration can still proceed.

The UK government has already sponsored two exploration licenses to extract essential battery metals from nodules on the Pacific Ocean floor. These licenses are held by Loke, a Norwegian company. Walter Sognnes, the CEO of Loke, expressed alignment with the precautionary principle and emphasised the need to close the knowledge gap. He stated that the company would not be prepared to apply for exploitation licenses until strict regulations are in place.

In recent years, the issue of deep-sea mining has gained prominence as a global concern. The potential environmental consequences, coupled with a growing awareness of the need for responsible resource management, have prompted a shift in the UK’s position. The call for a moratorium is being echoed by an increasing number of countries and environmental organisations worldwide. The move towards increased scientific research and regulatory oversight will play a crucial role in determining the future of deep-sea mining and its impact on the planet’s oceans.