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Japan’s pursuit of deep-sea mining: Balancing economic ambitions with environmental concerns

In a bid to reduce reliance on imported mineral resources crucial for advanced and green technologies, Japan is actively exploring deep-sea mining within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), with plans to commence operations by the late 2020s. Despite being among a handful of nations venturing into deep-sea mining within their territorial waters, Japan is keen on positioning itself as a global leader in sustainable deep-sea resource development, evident through its completion of multiple small-scale mining tests, claimed as world firsts.

However, concerns raised by critics about potential harm to deep-sea ecosystems from mining activities, including habitat destruction and the release of fine particles, have prompted over 20 countries to call for a ban or moratorium on deep-sea mining. With more than 800 marine scientists advocating for caution, Japan is cognizant of these challenges and is actively gathering data on deep-sea ecosystems while developing technologies to mitigate environmental impacts.

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Japan’s deep-sea mining ambitions span three types of mineral deposits within its EEZ: polymetallic sulfides, cobalt-rich crusts, and rare-earth mud. While also holding contracts with the International Seabed Authority for exploration in international waters, Japan’s mining plans are spearheaded by governmental bodies such as the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry.

Notably, Japan’s venture into deep-sea mining dates back over 15 years, with legislation promoting the development of seafloor mineral resources enacted in 2007. The country’s Strategic Innovation Promotion Program and the fourth basic plan on ocean policy underscore the importance of commercializing deep-sea resources to enhance economic security and reduce reliance on specific countries, notably China, for rare-earth processing.

One significant aspect of Japan’s deep-sea mining endeavors involves polymetallic sulfides found in inactive hydrothermal vents. Tests conducted by the Japan Organization for Metals and Energy Security (JOGMEC) have raised concerns about potential environmental impacts, particularly on vent ecosystems. Despite lingering uncertainties, Japan aims to move towards commercial-scale mining by the late 2020s, emphasizing the importance of robust environmental monitoring and conservation measures to ensure sustainable resource exploitation.

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