Bringing the green economy to the blue world

February 24, 2014


February 24, 2014

Achim Steiner

Executive director

Achim Steiner is Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme. From March 2009 to May 2011, he was also Director-General  of the United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON). Before joining UNEP, Mr Steiner served as Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) from 2001 to 2006, and before that as Secretary General of the World Commission on Dams. His professional career has included assignments with governmental, non-governmental and international organisations in places including India, Pakistan, Germany, Zimbabwe, the USA, Vietnam, South Africa, Switzerland and Kenya. He worked both at grassroots level and at the highest levels of international policymaking to address the interface between environmental sustainability, social equity and economic development.

When writers search for similes to convey a sense of unfathomable vastness, they often look no further than the ocean—this expansive blue world that humanity is simultaneously removed from and so dependent upon.

Yet this idea of limitlessness is misplaced, as we are increasingly realizing in the face of unchecked and damaging exploitation of the natural resources oceans provide.

There is no doubt that oceans drive economic growth and bring a host of benefits to society: approximately 350 million jobs are linked to oceans, the international trade in fish products spans 85 nations and involves an estimated $102 billion per year, and about $9 billion is made in ecotourism related to coral reefs. As humanity continues down its path of growth, we are probing deeper and further into the oceans—for fish, oil, gas, minerals and new genetic resources—in an attempt to keep pace with increasing consumption.

Yet as we look to a future in which the world population will swell to nine billion by 2050, simply hoping that the oceans can keep on giving is not a sensible strategy. These waters, which cover 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface, play a key role in climate regulation and absorbing carbon dioxide. We cannot risk disrupting these processes. Even if the oceans have more to offer, the evidence shows that, with current practices, humanity is unlikely to manage these extra resources responsibly.

Today, more than 30 per cent of the world’s fish stocks are overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. Pollution has created more than 500 dead zones across 245,000 square kilometres. Human impacts have destroyed more than 20 per cent of mangroves, 30 per cent of sea grass beds and 20 per cent of coral reefs. The research that shows us the damage being wrought also points towards long-term socio-economic consequences if we continue to treat the oceans as a bottomless well from which we can endlessly take. It is clear that a shift in thinking is required.

A key component of creating a new paradigm is providing governments with more evidence of the economic benefits nature’s services—natural capital, as it is known—bring so they can include them in national planning and thus reverse the degradation taking place across the globe. Without such evidence, the desire to display short-term gains through partial indicators such as gross domestic product will win out over sustainable long-term growth based on functioning ecosystems. A UNEP-hosted initiative, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, is setting out to increase this evidence in the coming years.

In the meantime, there are signs that we are at least edging towards the necessary paradigm shift; I would like to highlight three of them. Firstly, the number of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is growing. With support from UNEP, Haiti last year designated its first nine MPAs and others are set to follow suit. More needs to be done, though: just 2.8 per cent of the oceans are protected, according to a joint monitoring project run by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre. This is far from the 10 per cent called for by 2020 under the Aichi Biodiversity Target 11.

Then there is the new EU Common Fisheries Policy, which came into force on January 1. This policy is phasing out the practice of throwing unwanted fish overboard—estimated at 23 per cent of total catches—and requires the industry to stick to quotas designed to achieve healthy fish stocks. However, the private sector, which holds the power to drive a move towards sustainable oceans, should not wait for legislation to force it to change its practices. Natural capital accounting makes a very simple business case: conserve the ecosystem upon which your livelihood depends, or soon you will be out of business.

Finally, the UNEP Regional Seas Programme is demonstrating the importance of strong governance in managing oceans. The programme, through 18 Conventions and Action Plans spanning seven continents, aims to restore the health and productivity of oceans and marine ecosystems by promoting responsible stewardship. Over the last 40 years, these Regional Multilateral Environmental Agreements have assisted many countries to reduce land-based pollution; improved the management of coastal zones in the Mediterranean, East Africa, Pacific and Caribbean regions; and brought nations together to conserve the marine environment.

These actions and initiatives are encouraging, but the pace of transformation must accelerate. Setting measurable and implementable targets on oceans in the yet-to-be-defined Sustainable Development Goals, and developing cohesive approaches as a critical component of the post-2015 agenda will undoubtedly help. Moreover, learning to value the oceans the way we do any other resource – bringing the Green Economy to the Blue World – will be crucial. Our blue world is naturally resilient, and can recover. We just need to create the conditions to allow it to do so.

Achim Steiner is a speaker at The Economist's World Ocean Summit which takes place on Feb 24th-26th in San Francisco, The United States.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited (EIU) or any other member of The Economist Group. The Economist Group (including the EIU) cannot accept any responsibility or liability for reliance by any person on this article or any of the information, opinions or conclusions set out in the article.

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