With the world's oceans facing an environmental catastrophe, different stakeholders are coming together to develop a blueprint that strikes a balance between the use of ocean resources and the protection of the marine ecosystem. The so-called 'blue economy' is thus climbing up in the global agenda, sponsored by global institutions and island nations, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, which are raising awareness worldwide to promote development models more sensitive to the health of the world’s oceans.

“The prosperity of our [Asia-Pacific] region depends on healthy oceans and sustainable development,” Asian Development Bank (ADB) president Takehiko Nakao said in May. Speaking at the bank’s annual meeting, hosted by Fiji, he added: “We must work toward a more resilient future, where humanity and oceans thrive together.”

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The world's oceanic ecosystems are under threat from a range of factors. Coastal ecosystems are endangered by climate change and rising sea levels; over-exploitation has depleted the global stock of fisheries; pollution generated on land, including plastic, and growing levels of ocean-going shipping are all causing significant damage. Their combined effect has become serious enough to spur the global community to act.

“Unless immediate action is taken, about 90% of Asia and the Pacific’s coral reefs will be dead by 2050, and all commercially exploitable fish stocks will disappear by then,” the ADB said in May while launching a $5bn action plan for healthy oceans and sustainable blue economies. “This will significantly threaten food security, the global economy and livelihoods, especially among millions of poor and vulnerable communities in the region.”

A blue approach

The World Bank was among the first institutions to develop a concept for the blue economy in 2015, defined as “the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health”. The blue economy approach thus applies to six main fields of action: renewable energy with the use of sustainable marine energy; sustainable fisheries; sustainable tourism; sustainable maritime transport; climate change, meaning mitigation and restoration measures; waste management.

As the countries most exposed to the deteriorating health of the oceans, island nations are taking a lead in bringing different stakeholders together to create a global platform to develop a common approach in tackling the problem. Fiji, an archipelago in the South Pacific of more than 300 islands and about 1 million people, co-sponsored the first ever UN summit on ocean health in Sweden in 2017 (see interview, page 30) and spearheaded the debate around the prospects of the blue economy at May's ADB meeting.

The diplomatic push of island nations to create a global response to the oceanic crisis goes hand in hand with their efforts to recalibrate development models according to a blue economy approach.

“The Maldives is a big ocean state, not a small island nation,” says the country's finance minister, Ibrahim Ameer. “Our economy is very reliant on tourism and fisheries. It is very important for us that ocean health, the reef system, and the overall health of the blue economy, is well maintained. In order to do this, we have to have better reefs, tackle climate change, and develop sustainable fisheries and tourist resorts. We are trying to invest in developing our fisheries through investment in canning facilities and bigger and newer fishing boats.  

“At the same time, we have taken initiatives to rehabilitate reef systems. Some reefs are dying, so we are closing them to tourism to rehabilitate them. We have even installed 3D printed reefs [to help repair them]. The development of the blue economy is essential to the development of the overall economy in the Maldives because we are surrounded by the ocean, and its health is very important for us.”

Reducing pollutants 

The actions taken by small island nations may be meaningful for local economies, but have marginal effect on the global economy. Most air pollution that causes climate change, and the waste that is poured into the waterways and finally the oceans is generated on the world's land-based continents. The World Bank estimates about 80% of litter in the oceans originates from land-based sources.

Major contributors to plastic pollution are now also taking steps to curb production of plastic waste. “We have the ambitious target of reducing plastic waste by 70% by 2025,” says Bambang Brodjonegoro, national development planning minister of Indonesia, the world’s second largest producer of mismanaged plastic waste after China, according to figures from OurWorldInData.org.

“First, we are trying to bring awareness to the people,” he adds. “From the consumer side, we are trying to promote less consumption on plastic. In many government offices we are [banning] the use of all plastic bottles. In retail shops, we don’t offer plastic bags any more. We are reducing consumption, but also promoting reuse and recycling and the circular economy as a whole. For example, we are looking into using plastic waste for asphalt, as well as developing waste to energy facilities.

“On the producer side, it is still quite challenging. The plastics industry is quite big in Indonesia; the only way to limit plastic production is to implement an excise tax. We tried that when I was finance minister [between 2014 and 2016], and we haven’t been successful yet, but we hope that with the campaign about the danger of plastic waste and the importance of the circular economy there will be an agreement between the government and the industry.”

International aid

Multilateral institutions are also starting to provide support for local authorities trying to rehabilitate and preserve the health of their oceans.

With the Asia-Pacific region being an epicentre of the oceanic crisis, the ADB’s plan for healthy oceans and sustainable blue economies will provide financing and technical assistance for ocean health and marine economy projects to the tune of $5bn from 2019 to 2024, including co-financing from partners. The plan will focus on four areas: creating inclusive livelihoods and business opportunities in sustainable tourism and fisheries; protecting and restoring coastal and marine ecosystems and key rivers; reducing land-based sources of marine pollution, including plastics, wastewater and agricultural run-off; and improving sustainability in port and coastal infrastructure developments.

As a part of the programme, the ADB will launch a financing initiative to create opportunities for the private sector to invest in bankable projects that will improve ocean health. The initiative will provide technical assistance grants and funding from the ADB and other donors to reduce the technical and financial risks of projects. This will be done through instruments such as credit risk guarantees and capital market 'blue bonds'. Other multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank, are developing similar programmes.

The development of a green economy approach in the early 2000s led to a major revolution across the board, from renewable energies to, more recently, circular economies. The blue economy will now seek to replicate its success, for the sake of the world’s oceans.