Blue Economy: a sustainable ocean economic paradigm

November 26, 2018


From November 26-28, Kenya will host the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference in Nairobi. This conference represents an important opportunity to take stock of both the opportunities – and the challenges – which the Blue Economy concept presents, in the context of SDG14 - Life Below Water.

As the single largest natural asset on the planet which represents some 99% of the earth’s living volume, the ocean delivers numerous benefits to humanity.

  • The ocean is responsible for the oxygen in every other breath we take. It supplies 15 percent of humanity’s protein needs.
  • It helps to slow climate change by absorbing 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases.
  • It serves as the highway for some 90 percent of internationally traded goods, via the shipping sector.
  • If the ocean were a country, at several trillion dollars per year of economic activity, the ocean would rank 7th on the list of largest nations by GDP.
  • It is the source of hundreds of millions of jobs, in fisheries, aquaculture, shipping, tourism, energy production and other sectors.
  • It is also the source of some 30 percent of the world’s oil and gas resources but this equation must change if we are to succeed in the necessary transition to a low carbon development pathway.
  • Millions of the world’s poorest people depend heavily on the ocean and coastal resources for their sustenance and livelihoods.
  • Small-scale fishing provides about half of the world’s harvested seafood – but provides 44 times as many jobs per ton of fish as industrial fisheries do!

For the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Blue Economy paradigm is a natural next step in the overall conceptualization and realization of sustainable human development. It mirrors our long-accepted definition of sustainable development as one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Simply put, it is the utilization of ocean resources for human benefit in a manner that sustains the overall ocean resource base into perpetuity.

As for terrestrial ecosystems, marine ecosystems can only provide their myriad ecosystem services to humanity if they are governed and managed sustainably through an effective ocean and coastal governance. UNDP’s Ocean Governance Programme works towards helping countries achieve this - from local level through initiatives like the Global Environmental Facility’s (GEF) Small Grants Programme, to regional efforts such as UNDP’s Large Marine Ecosystems programme, and global efforts on sustainable shipping in cooperation with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and GEF.

In simplest terms, there are two elements for the Blue Economy.  The first is the necessity of protecting – and restoring where needed – the existing ocean resource base that already supplies food and livelihoods to billions of people. Depleted fish stocks that are permitted to recover can ultimately deliver higher, sustainable fish yields and associated jobs. If protected and restored, coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangroves can deliver increased coastal protection benefits from storm surges and sea level rise.  Coastal areas that reduce nutrient pollution and eliminate hypoxic areas can, in turn, enjoy higher fish yields and increased tourism revenue.

The other side of the Blue Economy is where opportunities may exist for enhanced or new sustainable economic activity derived from the ocean.  Progress and prospects for ocean-related energy, such as offshore wind and tidal energy, appear promising. Opportunities also exist to ‘monetize’ the value of highly effective coastal carbon stocks such as mangroves and seagrasses into carbon finance markets, or ‘blue carbon.’  Globally, aquaculture has been growing at a compounded rate of almost 9% since 1980, and now supplies nearly half of the world’s consumed fish protein. However, much of it remains unsustainable in terms of pollution and impacts on species diversity, making this a critical Blue Economy opportunity to introduce more sustainable practices, such as integrated multi-trophic aquaculture. With support from GEF and UNDP, the IMO and the global shipping sector are taking pro-active steps to minimize the sector’s contribution to climate change through improved energy efficiency, which can, in turn, enhance the sector’s profitability, a true Blue Economy approach.

This week’s Sustainable Blue Economy Conference represents a unique opportunity for stakeholders at all levels, public and private, to share ideas and opportunities, create innovative new partnerships, and work together towards turning the Blue Economy concept into tangible actions, which will deliver sustainable economic development.