From deep-sea mining and fishing to oil and gas exploration, the ocean economy is primed for rapid growth as our ability to industrialise the ocean grows. As oceans cover more of this planet than land, it follows that they should merit the keenest attention when it comes to opportunity and sustainability.
Jean-Baptiste Jouffray, a postdoctoral researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, Sweden, coined a new term to describe what has been happening to the oceans over the last two decades – the blue acceleration. “Humanity has used the ocean for millennia as a source of food, as a means of transportation,” he claims, but today’s use of the ocean is “unprecedented” for its diversity and intensity.
The Blue Acceleration Explained
The following examples offer some valuable hindsight. Since 2000, nearly one million kilometres of fibre-optic cables have been laid on the seabed to carry 99% of international telecommunications. The annual volume of cargo transported by container shipping has quadrupled, offshore wind energy capacity has increased four hundred-fold, and most of the major discoveries of oil and gas deposits have happened offshore. An area of ocean floor equivalent to the size of Peru has been leased for exploratory deep-sea mining. More than 13,000 marine genetic sequences have been registered in patents, and a surge in desalination plants has led to 65 million cubic metres of seawater being desalinated every day.
Lessons from the Dasgupta Review
Unsurprisingly, the wider commercialisation of the seas has presented significant challenges to its stakeholders and to global leaders. The long-awaited Dasgupta Review that was published in February this year has advocated for the pivoting of our global economy onto a new “nature-positive” footing. The landmark paper, which explores the relationship between biodiversity and economics, argues that natural capital has long been ignored by economic thought, an omission that has enabled the destruction of natural resources on a monumental scale. The conclusion that the paper draws is conspicuous – mainstream economic thinking is badly flawed and needs to be reformed if an environmental disaster is to be avoided.
There are good reasons to rethink the current economic approach. One vindication is that contemporary models of economic growth are fundamentally tilted against nature. For decades, the primary measure of economic success has been the national economic output, otherwise known as the gross domestic product (GDP). However, this metric is rather constrained for it ignores the role of natural capital and its part in propping up an economic system that incentivises activities that deplete ecosystems and habitats crucial to human survival. In light of recent events that have reshaped many aspects of our economic outlook, bold steps must be taken to achieve an “inclusive wealth” that does not shy away from embracing climate and nature goals.
What the UK can do to Develop its Marine Economy
In Britain, where the maritime sector facilitates 95% of all national trade and has directly generated more than £5 billion in tax revenues to state coffers, restoring the depleted marine ecosystem is an urgent priority. While the government has backed plans to introduce a new class of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) where all activities that could have a damaging effect on wildlife or marine habitats will be banned, more investment in those protected areas is needed. A recent WWF and Sky Ocean Rescue report showed that investing in the restoration of UK seas could deliver a £50 billion boost to the economy by 2050, not to mention 100,000 new jobs. Only a combination of legislative and market-based approaches can bring about an economic system that protects biodiversity while bringing about a fair distribution of returns.
Meanwhile, the growth of the blue bond market, currently valued at £1.3 trillion, appears promising. As the popularity of ethical investing grows, demand for blue bonds is poised to increase significantly, especially after the launch of the Oceans Financing Initiative. This follows the successful Seychelles blue bond issued in 2018 to support the expansion of marine protected areas and the sale of the Nordic Investment Bank blue bond in the following year to protect and rehabilitate the Baltic Sea. The preceding examples should serve as a powerful impetus for the UK to follow suit and harness the potential of a largely untapped market.
The Final Takeaway
The ocean, it is said, is a place where work is done and identities are fashioned. As the UN Decade of Action unfolds, scaling up and accelerating the shift towards ocean stewardship will require a collective and collaborative effort across entire value chains, from policymakers and regulatory bodies to business, civil society, the scientific community and the financial industry. A caveat must, however, be administered – the blue economy can only grow to its fullest potential if it has robust interconnectivity with the green economy, the creation of a sustainable economy on land. That, however, is a narration for another time.