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Norway’s latest plan for Arctic deep sea mining will inevitably sink

Norway's latest plan for Arctic deep sea mining will inevitably sink

Industrialising the ocean floor in the middle of a climate crisis is not only reckless, it’s cruel. 

Last week, the Norwegian Parliament took it a step further and voted in favour of deep-sea mining in the Arctic. 

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Again, a country that presents itself on the world stage as progressive and an environmental champion is serving dark and receding plans for the future of the planet. 

If governments are serious about tackling the environmental crisis, we need so much more than empty words undone by terrible plans.

Both the deep ocean and the Arctic are among the world’s last untouched frontiers. Home to incredible wildlife, the fragile ecosystems on the top of the world are also critical in the fight against climate catastrophe. 

What Norwegian representatives have just done in approving plans to develop an industry that we don’t need threatens to disrupt ecosystems that we need the most.

What kind of energy transition is being rolled out?

Deep sea miners have been going one further than even the greenwash of oil companies’ carbon offsetting ads — not just using nature to try and justify plans to burn yet more fossil fuels, but using the green transition as the entire justification for ocean destruction. 

Through this heady PR spin, the industry accepts the inevitable environmental harm deep sea mining would cause — it was getting harder to shout over the hundreds of scientists warning of the risks and Sir David Attenborough calling it a «tragedy» after all — but claims the extinction of marine life is a necessary sacrifice we must make to mine metals for batteries in electric vehicles. 

A narrow set of industries with a faltering history and terrible environmental record — from carbon offsetters to deep sea miners — are trying to claim they provide the only «pragmatic» route to decarbonisation.

Sculptures are covered in orange paint after activists from Stopp oljeleting (Stop Oil Now) have spread paint over them in the Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo, November 2022Javad Parsa/NTB via AP

This twisted logic shows the political consensus that tackling climate change now has, but belies a hard truth that the climate movement must be more alert to what kind of energy transition is rolled out, as it gathers pace globally.

A narrow set of industries with a faltering history and terrible environmental record — from carbon offsetters to deep sea miners — are trying to claim they provide the only «pragmatic» route to decarbonisation. 

Politicians must not buy these lies, which distract and divert away from the real solutions: cutting emissions at source and protecting nature, especially vast carbon sinks, which are our best ally against climate breakdown.

The dissolving social licence of big polluters

Deep sea mining perfectly illustrates what scraping the barrel looks like. 

Just as fracking before it, we are seeing destructive and polluting industries realise their social licence is dissolving, and resort to ever more extreme practices to extract as much as possible while they still have time. 

But yet again, companies are underestimating the power of ordinary people who care about the natural world to stop these plans. Even multi-billion dollar oil giant Shell could not succeed with its plans to drill the Arctic for oil.

An Inuit seal hunter touches a dead seal atop a melting iceberg near Ammassalik Island, Greenland, July 2007AP Photo/John Mcconnico

The international outcry — with 119 European parliamentarians signing an open letter to their Norwegian colleagues, asking them to stop the opening process, and the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council, a Brussels-based group of national science academies, warning of the “dire consequences on marine ecosystems” — will only get louder as deep sea miners plan to force a political crisis by submitting the first-ever application to mine the global ocean later this year. 

The grave warnings were reiterated on Wednesday, as the European Parliament debated the Norwegian decision.

The idea of mining the deep ocean will inevitably sink

We have to look to the other side of the Earth to take courage about why Norway’s foolhardy plan is not the end — and why this seeming setback for the environment will actually galvanise an overall victory to protect the ocean depths. 

In the 1980s, negotiations were underway — and indeed, even finalised a treaty — to open up Antarctica for mining. If the idea of mining the frozen South Pole now seems madness, it is only because campaigning across the world was spurred on by that crisis — and did not let up even after the Wellington Convention was agreed by governments. 

The relentless public resistance eventually succeeded in convincing France and Australia to not only hold back from ratifying the treaty — but to instead propose its polar opposite: a landmark moratorium on mining and drilling in the Antarctic that within just a few years gained enough political momentum to come into force.

The idea of mining the deep ocean will see a similar fate. The 12 months up to November 2023 saw the number of governments calling for a moratorium on deep sea mining triple — with 24 governments now backing the measure, including four of the G7 alongside Latin American powerhouses and Pacific island nations. 

Norway has chosen to isolate itself and it will pay the highest price: its reputation. 

With the unlikely alliance of car companies, the fishing industry, big finance and Indigenous activists all united in opposing the destruction of the deep sea, Norway’s plan to open up the Arctic to mining may just be the spark that torches the industry’s entire future.

Louisa Casson is a Greenpeace Campaigner.

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