Understanding the Blue Economy

By Emily Vidovich. Emily has a background in environmental journalism and sustainability and is a member of the George Washington University Class of 2019.

Economic prosperity and environmental conservation, while often framed as disparate goals, are better viewed as interdependent components of creating a livable future for humanity. Ocean-based industries constitute 3.5% of global GDP and are projected to double in value by 2030. Harnessing ocean solutions to environmental challenges can simultaneously protect the oceans, address climate change, and provide economic benefits to millions of people. 

Nurturing a symbiotic relationship between ocean health and economic growth is a foundational tenet of the blue economy—a conception of economic activity that seeks to sustainably use ocean resources to promote the wellbeing of ocean ecosystems, enable economic growth, create jobs, and improve livelihoods. The blue economy encompasses all ocean-related industries, such as maritime transport, fisheries, renewable energy, and tourism.

Analysis by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy found that investing $2 trillion to $3.7 trillion in four key sectors of the blue economy—restoring mangroves, decarbonizing international shipping, increasing sustainable food production, and expanding offshore wind production—would yield a 400% to 615% return on investment over the next 30 years. According to the World Resources Institute, this means that, “every $1 invested in sustainable ocean solutions yields at least $5 in return.”

The critical distinction between the blue economy and ocean-based economic activity to date is the blue economy’s emphasis on sustainable use. The blue economy seeks to shift humanity’s relationship with the ocean from one that is exploitative to one that is collaborative. This shift stems from recognition that healthy oceans are necessary for life on earth to persist. When the oceans are healthy, they sustain life on earth by providing oxygen production, ecosystem services, and climate regulation. Over the past century, human activity has increasingly altered the environment, imposing strains on the ocean that threaten its ability to provide these crucial benefits. The blue economy seeks to rectify this in order to ensure that our planet remains livable.

The blue economy also recognizes that the oceans hold solutions to the existential crises that humans face—including limiting climate change and avoiding food scarcity on an overpopulated planet. Blue economy climate change solutions include ocean-based renewable energy and carbon capture technology. And the blue economy’s answer to the impending global food scarcity crisis is expanding sustainable aquaculture, which could provide a less impactful food alternative to both wild-caught fish and land-based livestock. 

It is imperative that the transition to the blue economy happens as quickly as possible. When the United Nations (UN) published its first world ocean assessment in 2017, the report’s overarching conclusion was that humanity is running out of time to start managing the ocean sustainably. As a response, the UN established the years from 2021 to 2030 as the UN Ocean Decade. The Ocean Decade and the blue economy are founded on the same principle—that we need to stop climate change to protect the oceans just as much as we need the oceans to help us stop climate change. 

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