Deep sea mining and climate change: Phil McCabe reports back from COP28


Raglan-based environmental activist Phil McCabe has just returned from Dubai where he attended the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly known as COP28. Well-known both locally and nationally for work with Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM), Phil is now the Pacific lead for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. He attended COP28 in order to advance a couple of crucial projects and conversations around deep sea mining.

While the frustrations of government negotiations dominate media coverage Phil says that there is a whole host of other activity going on in the background. With over 80,000 people attending COP28 this year, most were there to attend hundreds of alternative meetings and to network, collaborate and advance projects related to climate change.

One of the events Phil was convening was with a group of deep ocean scientists who want to advance a significant deep sea scientific research programme in the Pacific. “The ocean is our biggest climate regulator.  It's our best friend in trying to fight climate change. So the importance of protecting our deep ocean is very high,” said Phil.

The other event was a high-level conversation about the moratorium on deep sea mining, which the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition is working with countries to advance at the international level with the UN.

Phil says that there are now a number of countries supporting the push for a moratorium. New Zealand is already on board, and Phil remains hopeful that we will stay there with the new government.

“I don't see any reason why they would pull away. There's no gain for New Zealand to do so, as we don’t have anything to gain from allowing deep-sea mining in international waters.”

There are now 24 countries calling for a moratorium, since the idea was first floated at the United Nations Ocean Conference 18 months ago, including large countries, such as Canada, France, Germany and Mexico, and more recently the United Kingdom. 

Phil anticipates that 2024 will be an important year for the moratorium, which if it goes ahead, will be imposed by the International Seabed Authority. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, the seabed authority is a UN-mandated organisation that exercises governance over the seabed of international waters, an area that covers around half the planet.

“The global campaign for a moratorium is moving in the right direction, and we’re trying to get the job done, if possible, in 2024, and a moratorium implemented.”

Tensions in the Pacific

Phil says his personal learning curve, from many years running Solscape at Whale Bay with his partner Bernadette Gavin, to KASM, to his current role with the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition has been a steep one. 

He particularly appreciates the opportunity it gives him to work with Pacific Island nations and their governments.

“Pacific people have a very close relationship with the ocean, culturally and for their livelihoods and food security.”

However, he says there’s “a moving conversation” in the Pacific on the seabed mining issue at present, with some countries – notably, Nauru and the Cook Islands – supporting mining as a means of economic development.

However, an increasing number of other Pacific countries are coming to see the value of preserving deep-sea ecosystems and keeping the ocean intact.

Phil stresses how important it is that, as far as possible, the ocean is left untouched. 

“We simply cannot afford to tinker with the deep ocean at this point in time, given the state of the planet, the state of the ocean, we need everything intact. We need everything working optimally to stop the worst sort of [climate change] scenario.”

Phil says there are already significant changes happening in the marine environment due to climate change. 

“It's warming, it's becoming acidified, so there's less oxygen (deoxygenation), there's greater stratification between the layers of the water column, which reduces vertical migration of species. Climate change is starting to break down that connectivity, but the deep ocean is the biggest carbon sink we have. It sequesters carbon like no other ecosystem.

“We don't know what the impacts will be of tinkering and mucking with these deep ocean areas, so that's one of the biggest arguments for stopping any activity that goes on there. We just need to leave things intact.”

Overall though, Phil says he is feeling positive about the way things are developing at an international level.

“I think the international deep sea mining issue is moving in the right direction. With climate change, it is really hard to listen to stories of the loss and damage being felt by Pacific Island countries. Already whole communities are being relocated in places like Fiji and Tuvalu. That was another whole side of the conversation that was going on at the climate change conference – around the ‘loss and damage’ being experienced by developing nations who have not contributed to climate change and how the wealthy countries are going to compensate them for those losses.

“It’s an evolving conversation, but at least it's an official conversation now, which is good.”

What is COP28 exactly?

COP 28 was the 28th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Held annually since the first UN climate agreement in 1992, the conference is attended by delegates from all 199 parties to the convention, and provides a forum for governments to agree (or disagree) on policies to limit global temperature rises and adapt to the impacts of climate change

Phil said it’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest, convening of the world on an annual basis with over 80,000 delegates attending:  “The conference was held at a massive Expo centre in Dubai, with close to 200 rooms, each able to hold between 50 and 100 people.  So there's 200 different conversations going on every hour, which is a lot of really positive initiatives being advanced.”