July 4, 2023 - 6:00pm

One of the more pernicious features of the United Kingdom’s debate on Net Zero is the tendency for politicians to strike bold poses which are entirely at odds with the economic and technological reality of the 21st century.

The most obvious example of this is on energy, where the political class seems committed to squeezing the life out of our North Sea oil and gas sector. We will need fossil fuels for decades during the transition but no matter: as long as other countries are doing the drilling, our conscience is green.

Now we have another example: peer and former Tory leader William Hague is calling for Britain to support a global moratorium on deep-sea mining. This would be a huge backward step, considering that, at present, the UK holds the perfectly sensible position of being open to mining the seafloor if adequate environmental safeguards can be built into the process. 

Even more than fossil fuels, human civilisation is going to need these metals indefinitely, for everything from computers and smartphones to the battery technologies required to power the clean energy revolution.

That means they’re going to need to be mined somewhere. Ruling out deep-sea operations would merely shift all that demand to the surface — and increase our dependency on nations such as China, which is rich in rare earth minerals and has invested heavily in the sector.

In contrast, the mining conditions in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (the bit of the ocean where licences are being granted) are ideal. At four to six kilometres down, any operations would take place on the abyssal plain, a dark desert where around 70% of life is bacterial.

Better still, these explorations are looking at so-called polymetallic nodules: basically potato-sized rocks — rich in cobalt, copper, manganese, and nickel — which are just sitting on the ocean floor. No drilling or explosive blasting is required, just a robot retriever attached to a ship, and they can be processed and refined on land.

Of course, such operations would not (yet) be entirely carbon-neutral. Nor would they have no impact whatsoever on the environment. But no human activity does, and compared to the environmental impact of surface mining, which nearly always takes place in areas vastly richer in natural life, the difference is significant.

Given the UK’s tiny share of global carbon emissions, one way this country could make an outsize contribution to the fight against climate change is by taking a leading role in developing and exporting the technologies the world will need to green up its act — creating jobs and wealth in the process. Yet that would involve taking ownership of the hard reality of our resource needs, and adopting a serious, strategic approach to our R&D and industrial strategies.

It also requires the courage to accept responsibility for the consequences of such policies — including environmental impact — rather than allowing much more serious consequences to play out for which the politicians cannot be blamed so directly.

So much easier for politicians to strike a pious tone, sign a moratorium, and let other countries — often with very different values — corner the market on the metals we need. We can import Chinese minerals while issuing a stern statement denouncing Chinese mining practices, after all.

There is a genuine treasure trove at the bottom of the Pacific. It would be a damning indictment of our age if instead of seeking the best way to claim it, we found pious excuses to leave it lying on the abyssal plain.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.