State of Green Business

What will it cost to save the earth's oceans?

A tropical coastline
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A tropical coastline.

In 2015, 193 countries agreed on 17 global objectives for ending poverty and protecting the environment by 2030. These Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) included SDG 14, to "conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development."

A new study by two former diplomats with the CONOW Competence Centre for International Relations published in the journal Marine Policy estimates that to hit the targets needed to achieve this SDG the world must spend $175 billion per year.

Reducing marine pollution will take more than half the money needed, according to the paper. At over $90 billion, that cost includes programs to clean up ocean trash, better manage waste and improve wastewater treatment plants. It also means investing in research on biodegradable plastics, all while working to limit plastic pollution of any kind in the first place.

About one-fifth of the needed funding, the researchers say, is for protecting and restoring wetland ecosystems, coastal habitats, coral reefs and other environments. For wetlands, that could entail setting aside new areas under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty (PDF) that aims to conserve wetland wildlife and ecosystem services.

For seaside ecosystems, it could mean investments in integrated coastal management. This approach brings together scientists, managers, community members and other stakeholders to cooperate on unified oversight and administration of activities in coastal areas, aiming to balance competing interests for sustainable development — all while prioritizing the preservation of biological resources and ecosystems.

Other priorities, the study says, are promoting sustainable fishing, directing resources to low-income island countries, supporting efforts to manage fisheries and fight pollution, and dealing with climate change, which acidifies oceans.

To estimate the price tag for achieving the goal, the researchers drew heavily from a 2012 report (PDF) by countries involved in the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international conservation treaty. The authors adjusted the report’s marine conservation cost estimates for inflation, while noting the high degree of uncertainty for some estimates.

Can we make these big investments? While the data are hazy, the researchers estimated that the money pledged right now for ocean conservation totals just about $25 billion yearly. If that uncertain estimate is correct, it leaves an annual funding gap of around $150 billion.

At the United Nations’ first Ocean Conference in 2017, 44 percent of commitments to take action on SDG 14 came from governments, while 20 percent came from non-governmental organizations. Businesses promised just 8 percent.

The biggest commitment was from the European Investment Bank, which committed $8 billion to help small, developing island nations become less vulnerable to climate change.

To bring the needed funding and urgency to SDG 14, the researchers issue 10 recommendations:

  1. Acknowledge how wasteful lifestyles mar our oceans, then shift our culture and consumption in a more sustainable direction. "For too long we have taken nature for granted, and this needs to stop," the study states.
  2. Keep SDG 14 on local and international political agendas. The last few years have seen more attention, which is a good development — if it continues.
  3. Invest in institutions that can implement ocean solutions, particularly in developing countries.
  4. Put effort into developing knowledge and technology that builds the capacity to protect ocean health.
  5. Target spending better. This could be accomplished in part by ending the some $20 billion in harmful subsidies to fisheries. At the same time, decision-makers should bring the SDG 14 targets into more development and environmental policymaking.
  6. Scale up traditional funding. Most of the money spent on biodiversity efforts, the report says, come from national governments and international organizations, which could mean big impact if these states and groups up their contributions even further.
  7. Engage the private sector. Businesses might help do their part by paying for ecosystem services or investing in financial innovations such as blue bonds.
  8. Get more money from philanthropists, who the research estimates currently contribute just $1 billion per year to ocean health.
  9. Support trust funds dedicated to ocean conservation.
  10. Coordinate overall financial efforts for SDG 14 by working for sustainable ocean financing.

"Our Ocean is vital for our ecosystem and for our economy," the researchers write. "It provides us with most of the oxygen that we breathe, water that we drink… and is the foundation for an economic activity estimated at around $3 trillion per year." Given that reality, the price tag of saving the seas seems worth it.

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