Call Norway's deep-sea Arctic mining what it is — ecocide

By Simon Holmström, Shirleen Chin, Wouter Justus Veening, Femke Wijdekop, Robert Bray and Valérie Cabanes

Brussels/The Hague/Paris/Oslo - Norway's recent decision to greenlight deep-sea mining plans in the Arctic has sent shockwaves through the world.

Despite mounting concerns voiced by scientists, civil society organisations, fishers, the Norwegian environmental agency, and more than 550,000 citizens who have signed an online petition, Norway will open over 281,000km2 of its waters to both exploration and exploitation of deep-sea mining — an area equivalent to the size of Italy.

This decision gives Norway the dubious honour of being the first European country to set out a procedure on deep-sea mining.

Although the research is ongoing, there is now a wide pool of evidence, set together most comprehensively by the European Academies' Science Advisory Council, pointing at the severe ramifications of deep-sea mining on the ocean.

Mining in the dark, deep sea where life is slow with little disruptions involves big machines grinding up habitats, releasing large plumes of toxic sludge into ocean currents, smothering marine life both in the mining area and beyond.

Mining operations also create noise and light pollution detrimental to living organisms. This environmentally devastating activity poses a grave threat to marine ecosystems, including extinction of known and yet-to-be-discovered deep-sea species, irreversible destruction of precious habitats, disturbance of fish and other aquatic animal populations, and ecosystem disruptions.

The damage will also interfere with the role the deep-sea plays in the ocean's delicate carbon cycle, causing long-lasting disruption to climate stability and marine health. Set against a backdrop of accelerated melting of polar ice caps, Norway's greenlighting of deep-sea mining exploration in the fragile Arctic is irresponsible to say the least.

To respond to the Norwegian decision, the European Parliament, which has called for an international moratorium on deep-sea mining, on Wednesday (7 February) voted for a resolution calling on Norway to support a moratorium and to respect its international obligation to not cause harm beyond its own waters.
Call me by my name

With all we now know about the impacts of deep-sea mining, it's time we call it by its real name: a severe criminal act against our planet — which is commonly known more and more as ecocide.

Ecocide, as introduced by the Independent Expert Panel in 2021, is defined as "unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts".

Lawmakers have taken note of this definition; It has spurred positive changes to the laws in Belgium and Chile, with other countries, such as Scotland and the Netherlands hot on their heels, as well as the Council of Europe, which is amending their Convention of the protection of the environment through criminal law.

The definition has also inspired changes of the EU Environmental Crime Directive, which now lists an activity or 'qualified offence' as comparable to ecocide if there is "destruction of, or widespread and substantial damage, which is either irreversible or long-lasting, to an ecosystem of considerable size or environmental value, or to a habitat within a protected site, or to the quality of air, the quality of soil, or the quality of water".

With what we already know about deep-sea mining, it is clear that the kind of exploitation activities condoned by Norway would qualify as an offence akin to ecocide under the Environmental Crime Directive. If an EU country were to follow Norway's example, it would be opening itself up to the possibility of litigation and criminal prosecution.

It is imperative for the EU and the international community to condemn Norway's ecocidal extraction intentions, and demand a reversal of this reckless decision.

The Arctic must be recognised as a global common and strongly protected in the light of its uniqueness and the critical ecosystem services that it provides. Failure to do so not only threatens the health of the Arctic but also undermines global efforts to combat climate change, restore nature and safeguard our planet for future generations. We should all send a powerful message that we need to prevent ecocide before it happens.


Simon Holmström is deep-sea mining policy officer at Seas At Risk and alumni member of the Ecocide Alliance. Shirleen Chin is an international legal expert, member of the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law, and project manager for the “Bottom Line! Project” on behalf of Stop Ecocide Netherlands. Wouter Justus Veening is president of Institute for Environmental Security. Femke Wijdekop is an independent legal expert at UN Harmony with Nature. Robert Bray is a member of council of the European Law Institute. Valérie Cabanes is an international jurist and member of the Independent Expert Panel for the Legal Definition of Ecocide.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the authors and does not necessarily reflect that of CEMAS Board.