Oceans constitute the planet’s largest ecosystem, covering 70% of the Earth’s surface and hosting 80% of all life. Oceans also generate 50% of the oxygen we breathe. While the oceans’ biodiversity is essential to global economic growth, SDG 14 focusing on ocean conservation remains the least funded. Transitioning to a blue economy is imperative to ensure sustainable economic development.
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Our Blue Economy
The oceans sustain 90% of the planet’s biosphere and play a vital role in producing oxygen, absorbing carbon dioxide, recycling nutrients, and controlling global climate and temperature. Oceans absorb about 23% of yearly CO2 emissions resulting from human activity and help alleviate the effects of climate change, having absorbed more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system. In addition, oceans significantly contribute to the sustenance and livelihoods of a huge portion of the world’s population, with 3 billion individuals relying on healthy oceans for their livelihoods.
Oceans are also crucial for economic growth as the ocean economy generates an estimated annual turnover of between 3 and 6 trillion dollars, representing approximately 4% of the global GDP. This encompasses employment, ecosystem services supplied by the ocean, and cultural services. Ocean-based economic opportunities, such as marine ecosystem services, not yet accounted for in markets, are estimated to be worth at least 24 trillion USD. Moreover, oceans serve as the primary mode of transportation for 80% of global trade and provide over 350 million jobs.
The blue economy involves the use of the ocean and its resources for sustainable economic development, requiring a balance between economic, social, and environmental benefits to align with sustainability goals. However, oceans are already under pressure from overexploitation, pollution, degrading biodiversity, and climate change. These major threats are deeply interconnected and have significant impacts on ecosystems, biodiversity, and livelihoods. In terms of pollution, 70% of our waste sinks into ocean ecosystems, 15% floats, and 15% end up on beaches. This pollution, combined with overexploitation, contributes to the loss of marine biodiversity, as evidenced by a nearly 50% reduction in marine populations between 1970 and 2012. Additionally, human activities have led to the degradation of coastal environments, with a recent study revealing that only 15.5% of coastal areas retain their natural condition.
Climate change exacerbates all these issues, acting as a stressor that worsens all other threats, further endangering the health and resilience of marine ecosystems. As mentioned by Peter Orubebe, an ocean enthusiast, “The ocean itself originally plays a carbon sink role. However, because we are heating the planet at paces that are faster than the ocean can cope, we are seeing cases of ocean acidification, which is leading to the depletion and collapse of many ecosystems. These are challenges that, in the long run, if not well managed, will jeopardize our future.”
The degradation of marine biodiversity directly undermines the economic potential of the blue economy. Recent projections indicate that climate-induced deterioration in ocean health could result in annual economic losses of 428 billion USD per year by 2050 and 1.98 trillion USD per year by 2100. With a growing global population and increasing consumption, unlocking the economic potential of the ocean will require a shift toward more responsible and sustainable practices. This transition is necessary for sustained economic development and for achieving the targets outlined by SDG 14. Mark Smith, President and CEO of the Pacific Seaweed Industry Association told us, “If we don’t adopt blue economy practices, we not only miss out on economic opportunities but also face greater challenges in ensuring food security and biodiversity conservation.”
Toward Sustainable Economic Development
The sectors with the largest economic shares such as marine fisheries, seafood processing, sea minerals, maritime transport, high-technology, ships, and port equipment all have huge economic potential derived from the sustainable use of ocean resources. As mentioned by Benjie Panahon, Blue Economy Manager at Blue Alliance Marine Protected Areas, “All components of the blue economy play a crucial role in job creation but also in the promotion of sustainable trade and commerce. The players in the industry are becoming aware that their sustainability could be a competitive advantage for them. This all contributes to economic growth as well as biodiversity conservation.”
Aquaculture, for instance, holds huge promise in terms of food security, economic inclusion, and public health. Progress in aquaculture development has the potential to boost total fish production in the CARICOM states by 30% over the next 10 years, provided there are substantial investments in supporting aquaculture policy and legal structures, accompanied by applied research, capacity building, and improved access to information. Moreover, Riccardo Milan, a blue economy advocate, told us “Blue carbon markets, a component of blue finance, enable organizations, industry leaders and private investors to preserve marine biodiversity and ocean ecosystems by supporting initiatives such as mangrove reforestation and wetlands preservation. These markets involve offsetting carbon emissions generated from various activities and redirecting funds toward projects dedicated to preserving, restoring, and creating additional ecosystems.”
In addition, tourism plays a crucial role in the transition toward sustainable economic development as it represents 40% of the ocean economy, including economic activities related to ocean-based industries, generating jobs, and serving as a cornerstone for a country’s economy. The Seychelles stands out as one of the most environmentally friendly destinations within the Indian Ocean, leading the way with innovative financing tools to foster economic growth while safeguarding its natural resources. The country has nearly 50% of the territory designated as protected land, representing the highest percentage in the world. The Seychelles have also initiated their first blue bond, valued at 15 million USD to facilitate the transition toward sustainable fisheries. Considering that tourism heavily relies on the quality of the natural environment, effective management can make tourism a crucial financial contributor to the sustainable development of the country. The greening of the tourism industry can enhance the inclusion of local communities in the ocean and coastal tourism sector and is fundamental to fostering local economic growth and alleviating poverty.
The Transition to a Blue Economy
Global awareness, coupled with concrete actions preventing unsustainable practices aimed at the conservation and preservation of the ocean space is necessary for a transition towards a blue economy. Juliette Lassman, Policy Analyst on Water Governance and Blue Economy at the OECD (CFE) told us “Governments need to create the enabling environment for a resilient, inclusive, sustainable, and circular blue economy and ensure that the playing field is leveled for everyone. They can do so by leveraging a range of instruments, such as marine spatial planning, regulatory mechanisms such as licensing and permitting, deploying economic incentives to foster sustainable practices, and awareness raising and capacity building initiatives.” A lot of progress has already been made in this respect and many commitments and targets have been established, such as SDG 14 or the European Green Deal. However, enabling regulatory frameworks are not effective enough if not followed by enforcement, monitoring, and integrated ocean management. This will in turn allow for supportive financial mechanisms, and thus innovation and research within this industry.
Moreover, a lot of data is still unavailable, and immense parts of our oceans remain unexplored. Enhancing data accessibility and monitoring can create huge opportunities for better ocean management and tailored policies. This can also allow us to better understand and quantify the value, potential, and socioeconomic opportunities provided by the ocean. Pushp Bajaj, a Technical Expert on the Blue Economy at UNDP in India, told us “The blue economy offers both economic and environmental potential, contributing to climate targets, SDGs, and international biodiversity goals. Collaboration among economists, sustainability practitioners, scientists, and stakeholders is essential to develop a holistic approach that values ecosystem services and incorporates social dynamics, ensuring a comprehensive blue economy strategy.”
In conclusion, urgent action is needed to transition to more sustainable practices, ensuring continued economic growth while safeguarding our ocean’s resources. Climate change and other threats are placing these resources at risk, upon which we heavily depend. Fortunately, raised awareness and the implementation of ocean governance frameworks and regulations are paving the way for the essential transition toward a blue economy.