The world’s oceans provide jobs and economic well-being to numerous people, companies and countries, but the blue economy faces many environmental threats. (Photo by Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

What is the blue economy? Sustainability and regeneration are the key words when trying to define a concept that is as wide as the oceans themselves and as crucial to life on Earth. The World Bank defines the blue economy as the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health”.

When discussing the blue economy, there are two main streams that connect in a symbiotic way: the preservation and regeneration of the oceans, and the generation of economic activity.

The global contribution of the “ocean economy” is estimated to be about $3.6trn a year and worth more than 150 million jobs, according to Andrew Hudson, head of the water and ocean governance programme at the UN Development Programme.

He says there are two main elements to the blue economy. The first is restoring and protecting the existing marine ecosystem, as that is where the largest social economic loss is already taking place to the order of an estimated $1trn a year from the combined impacts of pollution, overfishing, invasive species, habitat loss and climate change. The second is finding areas for potential new sustainable investments in the ocean economy that can create new economic lines of business, jobs and companies while improving livelihoods.

Challenges to the blue economy

Developing the blue economy is no easy task and comes with a series of obstacles. The World Bank identifies three sets of challenges:

• economic practices that contribute to the destruction of the oceans
• a lack of human capital
• a deficient valuation of marine resources and ecosystem services provided by the oceans

As things stand, exploitation is destroying the ocean and decimating its valuable resources, contributing to climate change and leading to the destruction of vital coastal and marine habitats. More than 50% of coral reefs are now considered to be ‘lost’, while an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the sea every year.

According to a World Bank document focusing on the potential of the blue economy, to “harness the employment and development benefits of investing in the innovative blue economy sector”, investing in human capital is necessary. This, it adds, runs hand in hand with a need to adequately value the marine resources and ecosystem services provided by the oceans.

Half of the Earth’s oxygen is produced in its oceans, and they absorb 30% of global CO2 emissions. The oceans are also host to an extensive pool of genetic resources and their trees and mangrove forests provide invaluable coastal protection.

Main sectors of the blue economy

The sectors that comprise the blue economy are wide, but the World Bank breaks them down into:

• fisheries
• aquaculture
• coastal and maritime tourism
• marine biotechnology and bioprospecting
• extractive industries
• desalination
• renewable marine energy
• maritime transport, ports and related services, such as shipping and shipbuilding
• waste disposal management
• supporting activities, such as ocean monitoring and surveillance, ecosystem-based management, activities supporting carbon sequestration, and supportive financial mechanisms

This classification includes extractive industries, whose sustainability is prone to much debate. Approximately 30% of global oil extraction takes place offshore, but the combustion of fossil fuels contributes both to climate change and the acidification of the oceans, which threaten the survival of ocean ecosystems.

The economic impact of ocean acidification alone could amount to $1.2trn a year by 2100, equivalent to about 0.16% of global GDP and about 10% of the overall projected damages due to climate change, according to the UN Development Programme and the Global Environment Facility. For many, the role of the extractive industries sector within the blue economy can only come with a low-carbon energy transition.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN, in 2017 seafood accounted for 7% of all protein consumed globally and for about 17% of total animal protein. The consumption and production of fish is expected to continue to increase, but according to the FAO this needs to be done sustainably, as more than 30% of fish stocks are currently being overfished.

Food fish consumption rose by 122% between 1990 and 2018, according to the FAO. Meanwhile, aquaculture production – fish farming – increased by a whopping 527% over the same period.

The blue economy and small island developing states

Obstacles in the way of the sustainable use of marine resources, such as climate change, are going to affect all marine-related sectors, including fisheries and aquaculture, but some of the most severely hit by these will be small island developing states (SIDS) and developing countries with prominent coastlines, many of which are subject to very high debt-to-GDP ratios.

For these countries, the development of a truly sustainable blue economy has an added importance, as most of them rely heavily on tourism, fishing, food and energy imports. On top of that, as Hudson points out, about 95% of SIDS’ sovereign territory is water. They are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, but as the World Bank states, they also have the most opportunities to explore from a sustainable Blue Economy.

Finding where environmental health and economic profit intersect is the key to saving life in the oceans and all the economic activity that derives from them, be it tourism, aquaculture or renewable energy. As Hudson notes, the apparent opportunities within the blue economy have to be balanced against environmental needs to avoid further destruction of the oceans in the name of short-term, unsustainable economic gains.