Environmentalists Are Their Own Worst Enemies
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Environmentalists Are Their Own Worst Enemies

This email from the Economist magazine describes the opposition by environmentalists to deep sea mining, which is probably the best, most environmentally friendly way to get the minerals needed to make the batteries to replace fossil fuels. It says:

I first saw a deep-sea-mining robot five years ago, in a hangar on the outskirts of Antwerp. “Patania I” was a prototype designed by Deme, a Belgian dredging company, to test the viability of hoovering up lumps of metal (a mixture of manganese, copper, cobalt and nickel) that lie on the seabed of the equatorial Pacific ocean. Vast quantities of these substances are needed to make the batteries that the energy transition away from fossil fuels requires. Known in the trade as “nodules”, these lumps of metal carpet a particularly quiet patch of the seabed known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ). For some of the metals, such as nickel, the CCZ contains more resources than all-known terrestrial reserves put together.

Deep-sea mining has come a long way since my visit to Antwerp. “Patania I” is now “Patania II”, while “Patania III”, which will mine the deep sea commercially, is in development. The Metals Company, a firm based in Canada (and Deme’s competitor), retrieved several thousand tonnes of nodules last year. Mining regulations are being drawn up by the International Seabed Authority, an arm of the UN.

As deep-sea mining has crept towards commercial production, however, arguments against it have become louder. Environmentalists worry, quite reasonably, that gathering metals from a part of the planet previously almost untouched by human activity will have harmful effects. The CCZ is essentially a wilderness, and to some folk it feels sacrilegious even to think about plundering it for resources. The doubters say that deep-sea mining will harm fisheries and disrupt the global carbon cycle. 

Neither of those catastrophic concerns bear out, however. And although the damage that mining will do to ecosystems within the CCZ is a real concern, it must be weighed against far worse alternatives. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that between 9% and 14% of species will be at “very high risk” of extinction if the planet heats up by 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures. At 3°C of warming the range rises to 12%-29%, and at 5°C it is between 15% and 48%. No environmental impact from exploiting resources can compete with this sort of damage.

To avoid it, the transition to green energy needs metals. But where to get them? For our Science section this week I focus on nickel, which is vital for making batteries. I calculate that, in terms of direct destruction of biomass, deep-sea mining at the CCZ is between 30 and 90 times less destructive than mining on land in Indonesia, currently the world’s biggest supplier of nickel.

The continuing resistance to deep-sea mining, then, is perplexing. Perhaps it is a sign that, while people are uneasy with the environmental destruction that humans are already fostering, they regard it as better than the potential future harms of little-known technologies. But this makes no sense. The history of civilisation is a long arc of replacing bad technology with less bad versions. In efforts to curb global warming, people should not let myths of unknowability prevent the extraction of resources which can do a whole lot of good. 

The same attitude is true for environmental opposition to nuclear energy. Because of problems with electricity grid and the economics of supplying the world with renewable energy, such as windmills and solar, nuclear is a necessary alternative to keep the world running for a generation or so.

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