by Guglielmo Picchi

As I participated, on behalf of Italy, to the 52th Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Leaders Meeting held in Rarotonga, °Cook Islands a critical issue that surfaced with urgency was seabedmining. This topic, that I discuss here for the Machiavelli - Center for Political and Strategic Studies, is emerging rather abruptly, has revealed a complex tapestry of economic opportunities, environmental challenges, and divisive opinions among the member states.

Economic Potential

Seabed mining, particularly in the vast and mineral-rich Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean, has been identified as a potential economic goldmine. It harbors extensive deposits of polymetallic nodules, which are replete with valuable minerals such as nickel, cobalt, copper, and manganese. These minerals are vital for the burgeoning renewable energy sector and are essential components in the manufacturing of batteries and other technologies driving the green energy transition. For many Pacific Island nations, this represents an unprecedented opportunity for economic development and participation in the global renewable energy market.

Current Approval Process

The governance and regulatory framework for seabed mining, especially in international waters, is primarily overseen by the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The ISA is responsible for issuing exploration licenses and is in the process of developing a regulatory framework for the exploitation phase. However, this framework is still a work in progress, leading to concerns about the environmental governance and sustainable management of seabed mining activities. Many Pacific nations have already partnered with mining companies and have been granted exploration licenses, eagerly awaiting the green light to commence exploitation.

Dynamics Within Member States

Tra gli Stati membri del PIF, l’estrazione dai fondali marini è emersa come una questione polarizzante. Da un lato, alcuni Paesi la considerano una porta verso la prosperità economica e un mezzo per assicurarsi un punto d’appoggio nell’industria globale delle energie rinnovabili. Dall’altro lato, i Paesi insulari più piccoli sono preoccupati per i potenziali rischi ambientali e l’impatto sugli ecosistemi marini. Questi ecosistemi non sono solo hotspot di biodiversità, ma sono anche alla base dei mezzi di sussistenza, della cultura e della sicurezza alimentare di molte comunità del Pacifico.

Divisiveness of the Issue

The heart of the debate lies in finding a balance between the lure of economic gains and the imperative of environmental and social responsibility. Proponents of seabed mining argue for its significant economic potential and its critical role in supporting the clean energy transition. However, critics, including environmental groups, scientists, and some Pacific communities, caution against the irreversible ecological damage and potential disruption to traditional ways of life. The uncertainty and lack of conclusive scientific data on the long-term environmental impacts of seabed mining fuel this debate. There are growing calls for a precautionary approach, demanding thorough environmental assessments and robust regulatory frameworks before proceeding with mining operations. Within the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), member states are divided into two main factions regarding seabed mining: those advocating for a moratorium and those in favor of starting mining.

  1. 1. Moratorium Advocates: This group includes the leaders from Fiji, the Front De Liberation Nationale Kanak Socialiste (FLNKS), Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, during the 22nd MSG Leaders’ Summit, whodeclared a moratorium on deep sea mining within their jurisdictions. This group which include Tuvalu, calls for more research into the environmental consequences of seabed mining. They emphasize the need for impartial research to fully understand the potential impacts. The concerns are rooted in environmental damage risks and the long-term or irreparable harm to seafloor life. The lack of extensive research compared to land environments and the witnessed impacts of terrestrial mining fuel their caution.
  2. 2. Pro-Mining Advocates: On the other side are countries like Nauru, Kiribati, Tonga, and the Cook Islands, partnering with companies like The Metals Company to exploit their license areas in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. These nations, with small populations and limited economic opportunities, view seabed mining as a potential windfall. They argue that deep-sea mining will provide essential metals for batteries and green technologies, aiding the transition away from fossil fuels. However, this stance is seen as potentially undermining their moral authority on other environmental issues like climate change.
Nauru al bivio: l'iniziativa High Ground può riscattare una nazione segnata dall'estrazione dei fosfati?

The emergence of this topic at the PIF underscores the complex challenges faced by Pacific Island nations as they navigate their futures. It highlights the need for a delicate balance between seizing economic opportunities and safeguarding their rich marine heritage. As the world increasingly looks to the ocean's depths for resources, the decisions made in forums like the PIF will have far-reaching implications, not just for the Pacific region but for the global community at large.

The Machiavelli - Center for Political and Strategic Studies'commitment to closely follow the topic of seabed mining, with additional research and reports, will be crucial in providing deeper insights and informed perspectives. Their analysis could significantly contribute to understanding the complex dynamics, economic implications, and environmental considerations of seabed mining within the Pacific Islands Forum countries. This approach will be instrumental in shaping policy discussions and decisions regarding this contentious and pivotal issue.

(image: Bilddatenbank des GEOMAR – Autore ROV-Team/GEOMAR CC 4.0 sa by)

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Direttore per le Relazioni internazionali del Centro Studi Politici e Strategici Machiavelli. Deputato nelle legislature XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII e Sottosegretario agli Affari Esteri durante il Governo Conte I. Laureato in Economia (Università di Firenze), Master in Business Administration (Università Bocconi), dirigente di azienda bancaria.