Blue Economy: Meaning and Explanation

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Humanity’s relationship with the oceans, and how people use and exploit their resources, is evolving in important ways. While the oceans are increasingly becoming a source of food, energy, and products such as medicines and enzymes, there is also now a better understanding of the non-market goods and services that the oceans provide, which are vital for life on Earth.

People also understand that the oceans are not limitless and that they are suffering from increasing and often cumulative human impacts. Oceans that are not healthy and resilient are not able to support economic growth. The fact that oceans and seas matter for sustainable development is undeniable. Oceans and seas cover over two-thirds of Earth’s surface, contribute to poverty eradication by creating sustainable livelihoods and decent work, provide food and minerals, generate oxygen, absorb greenhouse gases and mitigate the impacts of climate change, determine weather patterns and temperatures, and serve as highways for seaborne international trade.

With an estimated 80 percent of the volume of world trade carried by sea, international shipping and ports provide crucial linkages in global supply chains and are essential for the ability of all countries to gain access to global markets.

The “blue economy” concept seeks to promote economic growth, social inclusion, and preservation or improvement of livelihoods while at the same time ensuring environmental sustainability. At its core it refers to the decoupling of socioeconomic development through oceans-related sectors and activities from environmental and ecosystems degradation.

Challenges in the sustainable use of marine resources— such as the impacts of climate change in the form of rising sea levels, increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events, and rising temperatures—are going to have direct and indirect impacts on oceans-related sectors, such as fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism, and on maritime transport infrastructure, such as ports, with broader implications for international trade and for the development prospects of the most vulnerable nations, in particular coastal least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS).

blue economy

Although the term “blue economy” has been used in different ways, it is understood here as comprising the range of economic sectors and related policies that together determine whether the use of oceanic resources is sustainable.

An important challenge of the blue economy is thus to understand and better manage the many aspects of oceanic sustainability, ranging from sustainable fisheries to ecosystem health to pollution.

A second significant issue is the realization that the sustainable management of ocean resources requires collaboration across nation-states and across the public-private sectors, and on a scale that has not been previously achieved. This realization underscores the challenge facing the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) as they turn to better managing their blue economies.

The “blue economy” concept seeks to promote economic growth, social inclusion, and the preservation or improvement of livelihoods while at the same time ensuring environmental sustainability of the oceans and coastal areas.

At its core it refers to the decoupling of socioeconomic development through oceans-related sectors and activities from environmental and ecosystems degradation. It draws from scientific findings that ocean resources are limited and that the health of the oceans has drastically declined due to anthropogenic activities.

These changes are already being profoundly felt, affecting human well-being and societies, and the impacts are likely to be amplified in the future, especially in view of projected population growth. The blue economy has diverse components, including established traditional ocean industries such as fisheries, tourism, and maritime transport, but also new and emerging activities, such as offshore renewable energy, aquaculture, seabed extractive activities, and marine biotechnology and bioprospecting.

A number of services provided by ocean ecosystems, and for which markets do not exist, also contribute significantly to economic and other human activity such as carbon sequestration, coastal protection, waste disposal and the existence of biodiversity.   The mix of oceanic activities varies in each country, depending on their unique national circumstances and the national vision adopted to reflect its own conception of a blue economy.

In order to qualify as components of a blue economy, as it is understood here, activities need to:

■ provide social and economic benefits for current and future generations

■ restore, protect, and maintain the diversity, productivity, resilience, core functions, and intrinsic value of marine ecosystems

■ be based on clean technologies, renewable energy, and circular material flows that will reduce waste and promote recycling of materials.

The blue economy aims to move beyond business as usual and to consider economic development and ocean health as compatible propositions. It is generally understood to be a long-term strategy aimed at supporting sustainable and equitable economic growth through oceans-related sectors and activities.

The blue economy is relevant to all countries and can be applied on various scales, from local to global. In order to become actionable, the blue economy concept must be supported by a trusted and diversified knowledge base, and complemented with management and development resources that help inspire and support innovation.

A blue economy approach must fully anticipate and incorporate the impacts of climate change on marine and coastal ecosystems—impacts both already observed and anticipated. Understanding of these impacts is constantly improving and can be organized around several main “vectors”: acidification, sea-level rise, higher water temperatures, and changes in ocean currents. These different vectors, however, are unequally known and hard to model, in terms of both scope—where they will occur, where they will be felt the most—and severity.

For instance, while not as well understood as the other impacts, and more difficult to measure, the impacts of acidification are likely to be the most severe and most widespread, essentially throughout any carbon-dependent ecological processes. Likewise, the effects of sea-level change will be felt differently in different parts of the world, depending on the   ecosystems around which it occurs.

Most importantly, however, and unlike in terrestrial ecosystems, further uncertainty results from the complex interactions within and between these ecosystems. In spite of this uncertainty, the current state of knowledge is sufficient to understand that these impacts will be felt on critical marine and coastal ecosystems throughout the world and that they fundamentally affect any approach to the management of marine resources, including by adding a new and increasing sense of urgency.

Healthy oceans and seas can greatly contribute to inclusiveness and poverty reduction, and are essential for a more sustainable future for SIDS and coastal LDCs alike. Oceans and their related resources are the fundamental base upon which the economies and culture of many SIDS and coastal LDCs are built, and they are also central to their delivery of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

A blue economy provides SIDS and coastal LDCs with a basis to pursue a low-carbon and resource-efficient path to economic growth and development designed to enhance livelihoods for the poor, create employment opportunities, and reduce poverty. It is also clear that SIDS and coastal LDCs often lack the capacity, skills and financial support to better develop their blue economy.

This report lays out steps for countries to follow to make the blue economy an important vehicle to sustain economic diversification and job creation in these countries. In spite of all its promises, the potential to develop a blue economy is limited by a series of challenges.

First and foremost is the need to overcome current economic trends that are rapidly degrading ocean resources through unsustainable extraction of marine resources, physical alterations and destruction of marine and coastal habitats and landscapes, climate change, and marine pollution.

The second set of challenges is the need to invest in the human capital required to harness the employment and development benefits of investing in innovative blue economy sectors.

The third set of challenges relates to strengthening the concept and overcoming inadequate valuation of marine resources and ecosystem services provided by the oceans; isolated sectoral management of activities in the oceans, which makes it difficult to address cumulative impacts; inadequate human, institutional, and technical capacity; underdeveloped and often inadequate planning tools; and lack of full implementation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and relevant conventions and instruments.

While stimulating growth in individual oceanic sectors is comparatively straightforward, it is not always clear what a sustainable blue economy should look like and the conditions under which it is most likely to develop.

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