By Haruna Gimba
The ocean can provide vast opportunities for developing countries to build more innovative and resilient economies, but climate change, pollution and overfishing threaten the livelihoods of some three billion people who rely on it for food and income.
That’s according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Trade and Environment Review 2023, published on Monday, which analyses the world’s $3-6 billion ocean economy, and assesses how human activity and multiple global crises have significantly impacted sectors like fishing, seafood, shipping and coastal tourism.
The report, presented at the 3rd UN Trade Forum in Geneva, calls for a global trade and investment “Blue Deal” to sustainably use the ocean – home to 80 per cent of all life.
“The ocean economy offers many opportunities. We must strike the right balance between benefitting from the ocean and protecting its resources,” UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General Pedro Manuel Moreno said.
The report highlights two particularly promising sectors for sustainable development – seaweed farming and plastics substitutes.
The global market for seaweed has more than tripled in two decades, increasing from $4.5 billion in 2000, to $16.5 billion by 2020.
Seaweed doesn’t need fresh water or fertilizer to grow, UNCTAD points out. It can be farmed in many developing countries for food, cosmetics and biofuels, and provides an alternative to plastic. Around 11 million tonnes of plastics flow into the ocean each year.
There are many other sustainable materials that could be used to make eco-friendly versions of the straws, food wrapping and other plastic products we consume daily, said UNCTAD. Abundant materials include bamboo, coconut husks, banana plants and agricultural waste.
The world traded about $388 billion in plastics substitutes in 2020 – just one third the amount traded in plastics made from fossil fuels.
The report calls for governments and businesses to boost funding for the research and development of emerging sustainable sectors in the ocean economy.
It urges companies to invest in developing countries to bolster their technology, skills and productive capacities, so both can capitalize on sustainable marine development.
Investing in emerging ocean sectors could help developing countries to diversify their ocean exports. The global export value of ocean-based goods, such as seafood and port equipment, and services including shipping and coastal tourism was estimated at $1.3 trillion in 2020.
The COVID-19 crisis revealed the potential and resilience of some sectors and the extreme vulnerability of others.
Governments, the report says, should include the goal of promoting a diverse and sustainable ocean economy in crisis recovery strategies and climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.
An estimated $35 billion of government subsidies go to fishing activities around the world.
A significant share – about $20 billion a year – could contribute to overfishing by enhancing the fishing industry’s capacity through, for example, fuel subsidies or financial incentives to buy bigger boats.
With 34 per cent of global fish stocks below levels that are biologically sustainable, the report urges countries to urgently ratify the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies, adopted on 17 June last year.
The agreement, which is a big step in addressing harmful subsidies, prohibits support for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, bans support for fishing overfished stocks, and ends subsidies for fishing on the unregulated high seas. It will enter into force when two thirds of the WTO’s 164 members deposit their “instruments of acceptance.”
Similarly, the report calls for governments to adopt and ratify the Marine Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction agreement of March 4 this year.
Better known as the High Seas Biodiversity Treaty, the agreement will create tools for the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from marine genetic resources and establish internationally protected areas in our ocean.
It’s estimated that an investment of $2.8 trillion today in four sustainable ocean solutions – conservation and restoration of mangroves, decarbonization of international shipping, sustainable ocean-based food production and offshore wind production – would yield net benefits of $15.5 trillion by 2050.
Without a global Blue Deal, such benefits and the targets of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, on life below water, will be much harder to reach.
“Now is the time to set a new course by investing more in building a sustainable ocean economy,” Mr Moreno said.