Managing the “Global Commons” – the earth’s shared resources, which go beyond national boundaries – is emerging as a key challenge of the 21st century. Existing governance structures are no longer able to address the growing complexity of public and private interests in these domains. One of the most important global commons is our high seas, now under threat from commercial mining. So, with the growing likelihood of large-scale mining operations under our oceans, what measures can be taken to ensure that it is done sustainably?

Increased interest in deep sea mining is being driven by a number of factors, including demand for mineral resources outstripping supply on land, and technological advancements which have now made this type of extraction possible. The ocean bed, long exploited for its oil and natural gas reserves, also holds a vast supply of, copper, manganese, cobalt and rare earth metals. The economic benefits of mining these metals are obvious. However, questions are being raised about the potential threat to marine life and future governance of our oceans.

Traditionally, deep sea mining has been restricted to national waters. Now, it is expanding beyond the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) into the high seas, areas of maritime commons that are not the sole possession of any one state. These areas are regulated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which places no restrictions on conducting scientific research where no prospecting is taking place. Exploration and exploitation, alternatively, can only be carried out with the permission of ISA.

The ISA has regulations in place which oversee exploration, but is yet to agree on how best to regulate exploitation. UNCLOS, meanwhile, which was negotiated in the 1970s and 1980s, is often labelled outdated. Back then, understanding of deep sea ecosystems was not what it is today, and the prospect of large-scale deep sea mining was remote. Now, however, it is already becoming a reality.

The ISA has entered into 13 fifteen-year contracts for exploration, of which eleven relate to the Pacific Ocean, one the South West Indian Ridge and the other in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Four more contracts are in the process of being completed, including applications from a number of private mining companies.

A number of countries are showing interest, including the UK, China, Korea, Japan, Norway, Germany, Brazil and private companies who also believe that this abundance of untapped resources represents opportunities to make commercial gains. Given the amount of mineral reserves under the ocean floor, the potential is staggering. Last year a team of scientists from Japan carried out a study and estimated that 80-100 billion metric tons of rare-earth deposits are located in the Pacific Ocean alone.

Despite the possible economic benefits, there are concerns about the environmental impact of mining this new frontier. Greenpeace’s Alicia Craw warns that “deep seabed mining could have serious impacts on the ocean environment and the future livelihoods and wellbeing of coastal communities.” Meanwhile, reports suggest that up to 90% of what is extracted to the surface is waste made up of metals and other material which could devastate the surrounding ecosystem. The potential damage is worrying, especially as only3% of the world’s oceans and less than 1% of international waters are protected, meaning they are among the more environmentally vulnerable places on earth.

This highlights the importance of establishing a sustainable method of mining our ocean floor. It is essential that we have in place a regulatory framework to govern and regulate any exploitation of resources, and to manage our needs while protecting the surrounding environment. There are a few ways we could do this.

Firstly, the ISA needs to fill gaps in regulation relating to large scale sea bed mining operations. They could do this by negotiating a new multilateral agreement. However, this will more than likely take considerable time and run into the inevitable geopolitical roadblocks.

The second option is to create more marine parks. International bodies could call for a number of new marine reserves and stipulate that no deep sea mining is allowed in these areas or near coastal zones. Over the past few years,countries have set up protected marine areas in their own economic zones. International bodies should replicate this tactic in the high seas.

Finally, we need to take a holistic view of our oceans and look at synchronizing existing frameworks which cover everything from mining to fishing and shipping operations. This is something which is often discussed in relation to climate change, and could also be applied to ocean governance.

Unfortunately, there is little motivation for countries to act given the potential rewards. As the prices of these precious resources continue to rise, so does the incentive to go after them. Earth’s swelling population, meanwhile, provides additional strain, and this is further compounded by rising consumption levels throughout the developing world.

This problem applies not only to oceans, but other global commons which are currently being explored for resources. In the future we may also see extensive mining practices, for example, in space and the Northern and Southern Polar Regions, with particular focus on the Arctic.

In the meantime however, it seems inevitable that, at some point, a so-called ‘gold rush’ will take place in our seas, creating both opportunities and substantial risks. Proper governance is therefore vital to help mitigate these risks and strike a balance between industry and protecting our deep seas.

Published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Sustainability.

Author: Jonathon Cini is a researcher at the World Economic Forum.

Image: A scuba diver swims in the middle of a school of Jet fish. REUTERS/Peter Andrews