Revisiting the blue economy – a vital part of the world’s environment

This is the third in a series of republished blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange, revisiting important topics with ongoing relevance for public policy and practice, as well as for communities and wider society. This post covers the blue economy, focusing on why it is so important, the current challenges and what is being done to protect it. At the end of the republished article, we’ve updated the post to report on recent developments.

As the international community attempts to address the current ‘climate emergency’, increasing attention has been paid to the green economy. According to the United Nations (UN), “an inclusive green economy is one that improves human well-being and builds social equity while reducing environmental risks and scarcities.” Over the past decade, many governments have highlighted the green economy as a strategic priority, and since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C, action has been stepped up across the globe.

However, green economy strategies tend to focus on the sectors of energy, transport, agriculture and forestry, which leaves out a vital part of the world’s environment – the oceans. It has been argued that “a worldwide transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy will not be possible unless the seas and oceans are a key part of these urgently needed transformations”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, a new buzzword in the international sustainability agenda is gaining momentum – the ‘blue economy’. Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been an increasing commitment to growing the blue economy but what exactly is it and why is it important?

What is the blue economy?

Similarly to the green economy, there is no internationally agreed definition of the blue economy. Its origins stem from the Rio+20 outcomes whereby member states of the UN pledged to ‘protect, and restore, the health, productivity and resilience of oceans and marine ecosystems, to maintain their biodiversity, enabling their conservation and sustainable use for present and future generations.’

It is further explained through the UN General Assembly support for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’ as set out in the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Various definitions have been used by different agencies.

According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.”

Conservation International has suggested that, “at its simplest, ‘blue economy’ refers to the range of economic uses of ocean and coastal resources — such as energy, shipping, fisheries, aquaculture, mining, and tourism. It also includes economic benefits that may not be marketed, such as carbon storage, coastal protection, cultural values and biodiversity.”

Like the green economy, the blue economy model aims for improvement of human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

Why is the blue economy so important?

Clearly, ocean health is vital to the blue economy. With over 70% of the world’s surface covered by ocean, almost half of the world’s population living in close proximity to the sea, the majority of all large cities being located along the coast and 90% of global economic trade travelling by sea, it is not difficult to see why the ocean and its resources are seen as increasingly important for both sustainable and economic development.

It is also a source of food, jobs and water, and contributes to the protection of the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide emissions. It has been estimated that the global blue economy has an annual turnover of between US$3 and 6 trillion and is expected to double by 2030. It is also estimated that fisheries and aquaculture contribute $US100 billion annually and about 260 million jobs to the global economy. In addition, over 3 billion people around the world, mostly from developing countries, rely on the world’s oceans and seas for their livelihood.

It is therefore not surprising that ocean pollution and the threat to marine resources have ascended the sustainability agenda in recent years, attracting increasing global attention and high-profile interest.

Sir David Attenborough’s popular Blue Planet II series highlighted the devastating impact pollution is having on the world’s oceans. It led to drastic behaviour change – 88% of people who watched the programme reported having changed their behaviour as a result, with half saying they had “drastically changed” their behaviour, and half saying they had “somewhat changed” it.

The recently heightened concerns over climate change have also highlighted the importance of the blue economy. The IPCC report warned that coral reefs would decline by 70-90% with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99%) would be lost with 2ºC.

Momentum building

Governments and organisations from across the world have been taking action to address the climate emergency with many strengthening commitments to growing the blue economy in particular.

The first ever global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held in 2018. It concluded with hundreds of pledges to advance a sustainable blue economy, including 62 commitments related to: marine protection; plastics and waste management; maritime safety and security; fisheries development; financing; infrastructure; biodiversity and climate change; technical assistance and capacity building; private sector support; and partnerships.

A new High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy was also established in September 2018, the first time serving heads of government have joined forces on a global pact to protect the world’s oceans.

The UN’s Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030) will also soon be upon us and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been tasked with ending harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020. New approaches are also helping countries value their small-scale fisheries. Scotland’s economic action plan, for example, makes a specific commitment to grow the blue economy which includes a new, world-leading approach to fisheries management with a focus on inclusive economic growth.

Way forward

The increasing awareness of the blue economy and the threats it currently faces provide an opportunity to change things for the better. As the global conference on the sustainable blue economy suggested, a sustainable blue economy strategy needs to be people-centric with ocean-centric investments. If momentum keeps building towards growing the blue economy across the globe, perhaps this will go some way to mitigating the global climate emergency bringing benefits for all.

What happened next?

Since this blog was first published in 2019, the world has been turned on its head by the global pandemic. But while COVID-19 has stopped many things in their tracks, the climate crisis is not one of them. The IPCC’s latest report has provided new estimates of the chances of exceeding the 1.5°C global warming level, warning that “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.”

Of course, like so many others, the pandemic has also severely impacted blue economy sectors, which now need further support. The precise impacts of the disruption on the future of the blue economy remain unclear and it has been argued that building strategies that seek to maintain its potential pre-COVID will be challenging. However, the momentum that was building across the globe in committing to growing the blue economy has not halted.

We have now reached the UN’s Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030) which provides a common framework to ensure that ocean science can fully support countries to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The 14 world leaders of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy have committed to sustainably manage 100% of the ocean area under their national jurisdiction by 2025.

Despite delays and constraints, progress has been made by the WTO on harmful fisheries subsidies, with the 12th Ministerial Conference now to take place from 30 November to 3 December 2021.

And following the Scottish Government’s commitment to growing the blue economy, it has since committed to developing a blue economy action plan which will take a joined-up strategic approach across the diverse range of Scotland’s established and emerging marine sectors to maximise the opportunities offered by its abundantly rich marine zone. It will also “seek to help marine sectors and coastal communities to recover from the COVID-19 crisis and grow sustainably whilst also supporting a transition through EU Exit.

If anything, the pandemic has succeeded in emphasising the enormity of the climate emergency and the action required to address it. And the world’s oceans still have a vital role to play in this fight.

As we approach COP26, often billed as our ‘last chance’, it is hoped that outcomes will include “greatly enhanced commitments and resources to meet the challenges presented by the ocean-climate nexus”.


Further reading: articles on climate change from
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