Financing a sustainable blue economy.

Opinion piece by Pavan Sukhdev, President, WWF International. Reflections on the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference, Nairobi.

If the ten thousand delegates from more than 150 countries who attended the first high-level conference on the “Sustainable Blue Economy” are any indication, interest in the topic seems to be riding high. But will this indicator spell good or bad for a Sustainable Blue Economy, widely understood to mean an inclusive green economy[1] for the ocean?

Humankind has historically pursued and achieved economic progress by exploiting frontiers[2], moving to the next frontier once the former is exploited. However, to be “sustainable”, the blue economy needs a model quite different from our dominant economic model: a ‘take-make-dispose’ economy that converts public wealth into private profits, leaving in its wake a trail of devastation: distributional inequity, environmental externalities, and depleted resources for future generations. Thus the central challenge for senior policymakers and business leaders travelling home from Nairobi is to provide a clear steer to prevent the ocean from being treated as the next new frontier for conventional capitalism since we have already exploited all previous ones. This emerging economy’s purpose will have to be agreed by these leaders for the world to have any hope of achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal 14, which tasks us to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”.

The blue economy’s main sectors include some familiar to all (ocean fisheries, tourism, transportation, marine energy, and seabed mining for minerals) and some unfamiliar (‘blue carbon’ sequestration by restoring mangroves and seagrasses, amongst the largest carbon stores). Restoring, protecting and maintaining the diversity, productivity and resilience of marine ecosystems will need clean technologies, renewable energy, and circular material flows. But above all, since much of the ocean comprises global or national commons, it will need regulations, international agreements and financing principles that cannot be “cut-and-pasted” from those of our “business-as-usual” model. A significant and coordinated effort is required from member states of the United Nations, including Regional Fisheries Management Organisations, the International Seabed Authority and others with important ocean jurisdictions, to re-examine their rules and performance in the context of this economy’s necessary new purpose: achieving SDG14.

The prevailing economic approach to ocean and coastal resource use is clearly not working. WWF’s Living Planet Report launched last month showed that we’re hollowing out natural capital, including that of the ocean, at rates that are demonstrably unsustainable. The recent IPCC report, Global Warming of 1.50C, emphasizes that business-as-usual will dislodge our biospheric home from its climatic safe operating space.

In parallel to the discussions in Nairobi, thousands of senior representatives are completing their important meeting in Egypt, under the auspices of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to find ways to better protect the planet’s biodiversity. At the CBD meeting, WWF and others have been calling for a global ‘New Deal for Nature and People’; a roadmap for change that recognizes the intrinsic links between the health of nature, the wellbeing of people and the future of our planet. Decisive, global action is needed just as urgently across the blue economy as for the rest of our planet, to bend the curve of the devastating ocean and terrestrial losses in ecosystems and biodiversity.

The “Our Ocean” conference a few weeks ago in Indonesia saw the launch of the world’s first global framework to finance this approach: the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles. These principles explicitly target the SDGs, and especially the ocean goal, SDG14. The Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles will become part of a Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Initiative under the auspices of UN Environment, which joins the European Commission, WWF, WRI and the EIB as a founding partner. This is a strong demonstration of the momentum building to highlight the fact that the right investment, both public and private, will be central to restoring our ocean health.

The stakes are high. Here in Africa — a most appropriate setting for the Sustainable Blue Economy conference — 38 of its 54 states are coastal, and more than 90% of Africa’s imports and exports are conducted by sea[3]. At the very moment human reliance on ocean assets like coral reefs and mangroves is growing rapidly in fast-growing regions like the Western Indian Ocean, so the decline of these ecosystems is also accelerating. Add climate change, and it is clear this is an ecological and humanitarian crisis in the making. We simply cannot stumble along this path any longer. This conference in Nairobi has shown clearly that the Sustainable Blue Economy idea is gathering ground, championed by major institutions such as the UN Environment, the World Bank, the European Commission and others. It is clear that the Sustainable Blue Economy approach will be important also to achieve the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

Looking further afield, WWF released the first pan-Arctic analysis of the region’s blue economy, in conjunction with the conference, which carries both Arctic-specific and also universal messages. One of its main messages is for investors and policymakers to take a precautionary approach to the economic opportunities which actors are seeing for the Arctic’s “new ocean,” opening due to climate change; a troubling indicator of our trajectory, in and of itself. With an estimated USD1 trillion in potential investments lining up to exploit this rapidly-changing region, this is a daunting prospect. However, the Arctic provides an opportunity to apply what we have learned from the blue economies of other regions, and to get it right from the outset. By building sustainability into regulations, and financing guidelines before large-scale development begins, we can help prevent the most negative impacts — and avoid the multiple costs of stranded assets — in one of the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems.

If we wish to leave future generations with a healthy ocean, and the fisheries and ecosystem services that we all depend on, we must find a way to sustainably develop, protect and restore our ocean and ensure it is teeming with life, not plastic drifting through degraded habitats. The way forward is to commit to the sustainable development of the blue economy, and we are pleased to be working together with many leading public and private sector partners on this critical voyage ahead.

[1] Four defining features of an inclusive green economy to achieve the goals of sustainable development (“Towards a Green Economy”, UNEP, 2011 and “Uncovering Pathways Towards an Inclusive Green Economy: A Summary for Leaders”, UNEP, 2015) are increasing human well-being, increasing social equity, decreasing environmental risks and decreasing ecological scarcities.

[2]Edward B. Barbier, ”Scarcity and Frontiers: How Economies Have Developed Through Natural Resource Exploitation”, Cambridge University Press, 2011




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