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Build back better with a sustainable ocean economy

Sustainable ocean industries offer myriad opportunities to create jobs, improve livelihoods and combat climate change.

Crashing ocean wave

The coronavirus crisis has had a profound impact on the ocean economy. Before the pandemic, the OECD forecast that by 2030 the ocean economy would double in size to $3 trillion, providing full-time employment for around 40 million people.

As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, sectors such as shipping have been badly disrupted while tourism has all but ground to a halt. The Economist Intelligence Unit forecasts that global output will contract by 4.8 percent in 2020. Global GDP will not recover to pre-coronavirus levels before at least 2022.

Yet there is great optimism that a "green-blue" recovery is possible. Almost two-thirds of the audience to a recent World Ocean Initiative webinar thought that the post-coronavirus economic recovery would support a transition to a more sustainable economy. The fundamentals driving progress towards sustainability remain strong: The need to combat climate change and sustainably feed a growing population are not going away. 

In a recent report, the World Ocean Initiative has highlighted several opportunities and challenges offered by a sustainable ocean economy over the next 10 years. The report draws on interviews with 38 blue-economy experts as well as the latest studies and data.

Sustainable seafood

Seafood could provide over six times more food than it does today, according to the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (a group of 14 world leaders including major ocean economies), equal to more than two-thirds of the animal protein needed to feed the future global population. Seafood also has a lower carbon footprint than meat and could relieve pressure on land and water needed for agriculture.

However, the sector must first solve a number of significant problems. One-third of wild fisheries are overfished and no longer biologically sustainable. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a major cause of the depletion of wild stocks. Aquaculture is over-reliant on wild-caught fish to feed those that are farmed.

There is great optimism that a 'green-blue' recovery is possible.

Effective regulation of fisheries coupled with monitoring technologies can help reduce IUU fishing. For example, Global Fishing Watch uses satellites to visualize, track and make freely available data on fishing activity in near real-time.

Aquaculture firms such as California-based startup Calysta are investigating novel feedstocks, such as insects, algae and gas fermentation. Lab-grown fish is a promising new technology that may disrupt the market for sustainable seafood as evidenced by another California startup, Finless Foods.

Shipping and the energy transition

Decarbonizing the global shipping fleet is the greatest sustainability challenge facing shipping companies, creating a trillion-dollar opportunity for investment in zero-carbon fuel and engine technologies to 2030 and beyond. In doing so, the industry has a pivotal role to play in decarbonizing energy use in the wider economy.

The problem is that there is no consensus in the shipping industry over which low-carbon alternative fuel to switch to. For transporting cargo long distances across the ocean, ammonia appears to be the front-runner. Alternative low- and zero-carbon fuels are two to three times as expensive as heavy fuel oil. A price on carbon is probably one of the best ways to close that gap.

To fully decarbonize shipping by 2050, investment totaling $1.4 trillion-$1.9 trillion is needed, mostly in the fuels supply chain developing low-carbon hydrogen and ammonia. Sustainably produced hydrogen is likely to have many additional uses in a greener economy. The Global Maritime Forum, a not-for-profit coalition of more than 100 shipping companies, engine manufacturers, financial institutions and fuel and chemical suppliers, is working to achieve this cross-sectoral transformation.

Ocean-based renewables

Offshore wind technology has come a long way from the niche, expensive option it was seen as just a few years ago. Six gigawatts of turbines were installed in 2019 — a record 10 percent of new installations — taking the global total to 29GW. The industry is targeting 190GW by 2030. 

Most growth in offshore wind has taken place in Europe and China, although the United States, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea have set ambitious targets for growth encouraged by rapid improvements in technology and a steady reduction in costs.

Ocean-based renewable energy could meet nearly 10 percent of the annual greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed by 2050 to keep global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with the lion’s share coming from offshore wind power.

However, it is critical that the industry work closely with fishing and environmental organizations to avoid any potential impact on wildlife. Disagreements over these issues can damage reputations, as well as causing lengthy delays to projects or denial of permits.

Blue biotech

Marine plants and wildlife offer a growing number of commercial biotechnology applications, ranging from anticancer treatments to cosmetics. Globally, the algae products market was valued at $2.47 billion in 2017 and is projected to reach $3.4 billion by 2025.

For example, U.K.-based startup Oceanium is using a biorefinery to process kelp sourced from farms in the North Atlantic and to manufacture food packaging, natural food ingredients and nutritional products. Kelp farming requires no fertilizers, insecticides, food or water, and using the biorefinery means that the whole plant can be used without waste.

However, habitat loss, climate change and invasive species are threatening the genetic diversity of the seas that companies rely on for creating innovative and sustainable new products. Establishing Marine Protected Areas and investing in ecosystem restoration is an important way not only to preserve this valuable resource, but to enhance the ocean’s ability to regulate the climate. Mangroves, seagrass and salt marshes can store up to 1,000 tonnes of carbon per hectare — much higher than most terrestrial ecosystems.

These are just a few contributions that a sustainable ocean economy could make to "building back better" in the post-coronavirus recovery. Find out more about "A sustainable ocean economy in 2030: Opportunities and challenges."

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