United Nations and World Economic Forum highlight the need for a post-COVID19 sustainable blue recovery

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Mukhisa Kituyi, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and Dona Bertarelli, UNCTAD’s new special adviser for the blue economy, outline what the blue recovery agenda should include. Developing countries in particular can benefit.

Written by: Dona Bertarelli & Mukisha Kituy

The world’s seventh-largest economy based on GDP doesn’t belong to a single country, and isn’t even on land, yet it’s valued at around $3trn annually, and supports the livelihoods of more than 3 billion people.

It’s the ocean.

Worryingly, the health of the ocean is in decline and the blue economy it supports is now under increasing threat. The current model of operating is no longer sustainable. The ocean’s natural assets are fast eroding under the pressure of human activities.

A sustainable blue economic recovery is critical for the future of the 3bn people, most of them in developing countries, who rely on the ocean and its natural resources for their livelihoods, and the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) that depend on ocean-based tourism for up to 50% of their GDP.

Ocean health equals human health and wealth

We are at a crossroads in history. We must ensure an equitable, regenerative and sustainable blue economic recovery to cushion us against future global crises by enhancing the resilience of ecosystems and thus livelihoods.

Implementing a blue economic approach is possible under the guidance of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). UNCTAD has identified the pillars of such an approach: economic growth, conservation and sustainable use of the ocean, inclusive social development, science and innovation, as well as sound ocean governance.

Towards a deep blue vision

We envision a blue economy that derives value from the ocean, seas and coastal areas while protecting the health of the ocean ecosystem and enabling its sustainable use.

We need to diversify towards economic activities that will have a lower impact on ecosystems while sustaining livelihoods and stimulating job creation.

New areas of opportunity include marine bioprospecting, ocean science, sustainable aquaculture, renewable energy, low-carbon shipping, and blue finance, as well as ecotourism and blue carbon.

All hands on deck

Governments around the world can set a new course. It’s possible to combine production from the ocean with protecting its economic, social, and environmental value for the future.

Coastal countries must prioritize ocean, marine and coastal resources and ecosystems in their strategies for trade, the environment, and climate change as well as in their actions to promote sustainable development.

Countries such as Seychelles are walking the talk. It has declared 30% of its waters protected areas, well beyond the 10% target set by SDG14, restricting activities within these areas to balance economic needs with environmental protection.

Science needs to drive these efforts and inform policymaking and regulations. The UN Decade of Ocean Science, which starts next year, will be an opportunity to maximize the benefits of effective science-based management of our ocean space and resources.

Regulation is key

Regulation is of prime importance for food security and to ensure that harvesting and trade in marine resources are transparent, traceable, certified, sustainable and safe, to meet consumers’ growing demand for sustainably sourced products and services.

Sustainable biodiversity-based value chains, products, and services in ocean-based sectors should adhere to internationally agreed criteria of sustainability, such as the blue BioTrade principles.

As part of this effort, UNCTAD and the UN Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea are launching the first-ever oceans economy and trade strategy in Costa Rica. 

Ending harmful fisheries subsidies 

Harmful fisheries subsidies must end, and governments need to shift the allocation of public funds to fish-stock management and ecosystem restoration, instead of fuelling overcapacity, overexploitation, inequalities and human and wildlife trafficking. 

UNCTAD has been supporting negotiations on fish subsidies at the World Trade Organisation by providing a safe platform for dialogue and targeted research on key options and alternatives for a multilateral outcome. 

Binding measures to be taken by governments include finalizing negotiations of the High Seas Treaty to enable the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Deploying blue finance and marine-based research

Innovative financial instruments such as blue bonds and blended financing are needed to fund the shift towards more sustainable ocean sectors. For instance, in 2019 Morgan Stanley, working with the World Bank, sold $10m worth of blue bonds with the aim of solving the challenge of plastic waste pollution in oceans.

Investment in applied marine-based research, development, and knowledge-sharing should also be increased. To this end, UNCTAD has established regional centers of excellence with partner institutions in Vietnam and Mauritius, enabling the sharing of experiences, technical knowledge, and fisheries’ inputs. 

SIDS and coastal communities are vital to preserving the ocean and will need global support to conserve and develop a blue economy that benefits not only local populations but humanity as a whole. 

We need more individual and collective action if we are to build a sustainable blue economy that leads to prosperity for all. 


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