Digging more mines on land and in fragile ecosystems like the deep sea threatens the biodiversity and ecosystems upon which life depends, a new report by Seas At Risk warns. Viable alternatives to mining exist, we just need the vision and wherewithal to pursue them.

A newly published report –‘Breaking Free From Mining – A 2050 blueprint for a world without mining on land and in the deep sea’outlines the steps needed to shift away from environmentally harmful and climate wrecking activities and towards a more resilient economy that can break free from its addiction to extracting finite resources from the Earth.

Mining is one of the world’s most polluting industries and a major contributor to climate change. The production of seven metals (iron, aluminium, copper, zinc, lead, nickel and manganese) is responsible for 7% of all greenhouse gas emissions and a major cause of biodiversity loss, human rights violations, political instability and forced displacements in disadvantaged countries.

As the environmental and climate crises intensify, the much-needed transition to a carbon-neutral economy has focused mostly on technology and innovation including the large-scale deployment of renewable energy infrastructure, electric vehicles and digitalisation, all of which are metal-intensive.

Undermining progress

However, relying only on the ‘green economy’ transition without moving away from overconsumption and the paradigm of infinite economic growth requires vast amounts of metals and minerals for batteries, electronic devices or energy infrastructure. “Technology and innovation are an important part of the solution to the climate and biodiversity breakdown. But we also need much deeper social and economic change,” says Ann Dom, Senior Policy Advisor at Seas At Risk, “and this involves shaping a different narrative for a sustainable future.”

Without systemic change, the expected growth in demand for metals would lead to more mines being opened on land and resource extraction being pushed into new frontiers such as the deep sea, whose ecosystems sustain life on earth. Hundreds of new mines are being planned across Europe, while several European countries currently hold deep-sea mining exploration licences in international waters and could start mining operations as early as 2023. “Unless we bring about change, metals are on course to becoming the fossil fuels of the 21st century,” explains Monica Verbeek, Executive Director at Seas At Risk.

Seas at Risk’s report shows how, as a society, we are mining in the wrong places. In the EU alone, there are more than 500 million shelved phones, worth €1.3 billion in recoverable gold, silver, platinum, palladium and copper. Although extracting such metals as copper or gold from e-waste can be 13 times cheaper than extracting them from conventional mines, the paper suggests that one reason for the failure to recover and reuse these resources is that no-one has seriously considered the need to leave virgin minerals in the ground and in the seabed.

Mining for alternatives

The report sets out alternative pathways to a different society and economy. It propels the reader to 2050 and a world in which we have moved away from over-exploitation of natural resources, where primary metal extraction has become a thing of the past, and where the deep sea has been safeguarded from ecosystem destruction.

It identifies 2020 as a tipping point for mining and the beginning of the transition to a post-growth society. It discusses existing and emerging alternatives – including the end of planned obsolescence and the rise of repair, reuse and remanufacturing of goods; the shift to distributed energy generation; and mobility systems less reliant on private cars, among many others – and how they are to become instrumental in a fundamental transformation towards an economy based on needs rather than growth, on wellbeing and on the fair use of resources.

Only decisive political will to curb resource extraction will force real progress towards circularity. The status quo – which feeds relatively cheap metals into the market at huge environmental cost – is not serving as an incentive to stop the massive waste of metals in wealthier nations. As an example, there is currently enough gold in vaults and national reserves to meet global demand in perpetuity without extracting another ounce from the ground.

Sacrificing entire ecosystems on land and in the deep sea to fuel a new mining boom would not only exacerbate the planetary crisis, but is also unnecessary, as the fact-based alternative narrative presented in the paper showcases. As we work towards a world without fossil fuels, we can also imagine one without mining.

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