Louise Heaps, Head of Blue Economy, WWF

The Blue Economy has captured the attention of the world as nations and developers increasingly look to the ocean for new economic opportunities. Certainly, the ocean has great value, estimated by WWF to be worth $24 trillion, providing economic benefits of up to $2.5 trillion per annum[1]. The OECD has even projected a doubling of the ocean economy by 2030[2] – taken to include all economic sectors with a direct or indirect link to the ocean – with unprecedented development expected in coastal tourism, infrastructure, energy, biotechnology, transport and food production. Yet the ocean’s natural assets are already under enormous pressure and many are unfortunately in steep decline.

The 2018 Living Planet Report and 2019 IPBES report give us strong evidence of the impact of business-as-usual, not only on land, but increasingly on the Ocean and the ecosystems goods and services it provides. The IPCC’s Special Report on the Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate further outlines the stark implications of climate change for the many millions of people dependent on the ocean for their livelihoods and wellbeing.

What is clear is that the current development trajectory entails great risk for business and society as a whole, and therefore runs counter to the delivery of all 17 SDG s, including those focusing on the Zero Hunger, No Poverty, Livelihood Security, as well as the Ocean. Of particular concern is the wave of rapid and unsustainable growth projected in the already fragmented and damaged coastal areas – with infrastructure investments alone forecast to be in the trillions.

Put simply, our social and economic growth ambitions are dependent on healthy ecosystems and the goods and services they provide. We should therefore not be simply talking about ambitions for ‘blue growth’, but the need to secure a truly Sustainable Blue Economy, one that will minimise risks and build ocean resilience, particularly in the face of a changing and erratic climate.

We must therefore ask ourselves how can such ambitions for the blue economy be sustained when we risk further eroding the resource base on which it depends?

In order to achieve a sustainable blue economy in line with the SDGs, and particularly SDG14 (Oceans), we urgently need to start aligning incentives and capital towards a shared vision for a Sustainable Blue Economy, one which:

  • Provides social and economic benefits for current and future generations;
  • Restores, protects and maintains diverse, productive and resilient marine ecosystems; and is
  • Based on clean technologies, renewable energy and circular material flows.

This is why WWF, the European Commission, the European Investment Bank (EIB), and the World Resources Institute (WRI) developed and launched the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles in October 2018, the world’s first global framework designed to guide future ocean-based finance towards the most sustainable development pathways possible. If widely adopted, these principles could help transform the way in which humanity is managing the ocean’s resources; showing how profitability must go hand-in-hand with environmental and social stewardship.

The transition to a sustainable blue economy will also requires innovation and partnership on a scale not seen before, creating portfolios that align with SDG14. Alongside redirecting mainstream finance, new forms of finance, incentives and disincentives will need to be created to ensure that finance is targeted at sustainable development. To enable this, stronger regulation and industry-specific targets, measures and guidelines will be required.

Most importantly, whilst seeking new opportunities for the blue economy, the public and private sector alike must urgently invest in the restoration and effective management of ocean habitats and ecosystems, particularly those which secure human wellbeing by providing coastal protection, sequestering carbon dioxide and underpinning essential breeding and feeding grounds for fish populations. If resourced and implemented effectively, many of the necessary governance tools, regulations and approaches to build ocean resilience and improve long-term investment opportunities already exist. Certainly, smart strategic marine spatial planning and marine protected areas can no longer be seen as a nice to have. They must instead be viewed as essential investments necessary to secure national economies and business prospects in the long-term.

This is a critical moment in time. If the world is to secure a healthy ocean and the significant  benefits and opportunities that this will provide, we must choose development pathways that restore, protect and effectively manage our ocean’s natural capital, collaborating in new ways to deliver a truly sustainable blue economy.

[1] Hoegh-Guldberg, O., Beal, D. and Chaudhry, T. (2015) Reviving the Ocean Economy: the case for action–2015. Gland, Geneva: WWF International. <//www.worldwildlife.org/publications/reviving-the-oceans-economy-the-case-for-action-2015>

[2] OECD (2016) The Ocean Economy in 2030. OECD Publishing, Paris. <//doi.org/10.1787/9789264251724-en>