Blue pathways

Punctuated by heat, fires, and floods in all corners of the world, July 2021 exceeded all climate scientists’ models. Climate change is taking place at a faster and greater rate than previously envisaged. Perhaps less visible, but no less dramatic, are conditions off-land. Countless practices disturb our oceans today – overfishing, plastic disposal, deep sea mining, offshore renewables deployment – and contribute to destabilising natural marine processes. More indirectly, oceans absorb greenhouse gases (GHG) from fossil-fuel heavy production, and thereby undergo thermal heating. Concurrently, warmer oceans both expand, and melt polar ice caps. As a result, our oceans are acidifying and de-oxidising, corals bleaching, waters heating and rising. All metrics for all parameters related to marine biodiversity and ecosystems are at their most widespread and destructive levels on record (see IPCC 2019).

Oceans are sine qua non conditions for human economies. Half of the global population relies on marine species as a prime source of protein. 9 in every 10 goods reach consumers by sea. 1.2 million kilometres of underwater cables carry our data from point A to B. Provision of resources and the ability to trade them has motivated humans to build cities around water for thousands of years. Oceans also condition human life, producing half the air we breathe and absorbing enough CO2 to maintain habitable temperatures. In fact, oceans are the world’s largest carbon sink, not rainforests. Our waters are the lungs of the Earth. Oceans are the cradle, enablers and connectors of our societies and the species around us. They house some of the most complex and intelligent life forms, and provide solutions for the most widespread human diseases. Yet we unload the equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic into our waters every minute.

The challenge lies in harmonising our economic and natural reliance on oceans. By 2050 it will cost $1 trillion every single year to manage sea level rise and flooding alone, narrowing economic benefits. Of course, we can’t just remove underwater cables, stop trade, call fishing boats home, or cease production overnight. But failing better ocean treatment, the dramatic consequences lying ahead will shut everything down for us. For sustainable marine and human interaction, we need to reconceptualise how we value oceans and how we govern oceans.


Quantifying oceanic services is a first necessary step. Just how much monetary benefit do we draw from our waters? Blue Natural Capital Accounting is an approach that emphasises healthy ecosystems; reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, saltmarshes and wetlands are essential for species development, protection of coastlines from storms, and carbon sequestration. ORRAA, a coalition of financial institutions, measures these mitigation and adaptation services through the lens of risk. For example, reefs mitigate storm damages by over $4bn annually, while mangroves protect 20 million people from flooding. But some risk is already within reach. Cyclones expose $1.5tn of GDP, and insurers pay more than $300bn annually for coastal damage. Cost-benefit analyses consistently demonstrate exponential risks associated with marine biodiversity degradation. Investing in nature-based solutions is a means of re-allocating those assets that put stress on nature, while promoting conservation and restoration practices.

Benefits of mangroves, Mangrove Action Project

Carbon credits and bonds are the main emergent instruments for marine NBS investment. Blue credits work much like the carbon market on land. Firms can offset their carbon-intensive activities or portfolios by investing in resilience projects. Norm-leading NGO Verra has so far deployed 970,000 credits for mangrove restoration, equivalent in CO2 metric tonnes. In bringing private finance and firms into the biodiversity scene, blue carbon markets will be determinant in capitalising on oceanic solutions. A second pathway – blue bond issuance – allows for a cash up front transfer for enhanced conservation. Most notably, in 2018 the Seychelles made a call for a $15m debt swap towards implementing a fisheries management plan and new Marine Protected Area (MPA). In 2020, Bank of China became the first commercial bank to issue a blue bond, at close to $1bn. This market is expected to follow in the footsteps of the green bond market, which boomed after multilateral development banks kickstarted the trend in 2007. Together with MDB and government grants, blue finance approaches are transforming the way we value oceans, as resources integral to the health of our economies. ‘We now understand an integrated economy, across the sea that connects all things’ says Peter Neill of the World Ocean Observatory. No longer can distinctions be made between traditional production factors and natural resources.


Since the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), oceans have fallen under two governance categories. Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) grant national sovereignty over the waters up to 200 nautical miles from coastal borders. So, states can decide how to use the resources in the given area. On the other hand, international waters, otherwise known as high seas, are open access resources, not subject to regulation. One can fish, mine, extract, and destroy as they see fit. As with most public goods in our natural environment, oceans provide users with little incentive for protection or compensation. That’s why 55% of oceans are subject to industrial fishing and one third of all freshwater fish risk extinction. Only 1% of high seas are Marine Protected Areas, and unlike in territorial waters like The Seychelles, no authority can unilaterally alter this reality.

Level of Marine Protected Areas in EEZs, Our World in Data

The Dasgupta Review calls for supranational institutions to regulate the use and allocate the benefits of high waters. A tax on global commons could be re-distributed as aid for ecosystem preservation and regeneration. More waters could become MPAs, bringing us closer to the 30% of total oceanic surface required by 2030. Ocean governance reform needs to be present at COP26 in Glasgow and at CBD COP15 in Kunming because it really is lacking. The word ‘ocean’ appears only once in the Paris Agreement. As for EEZs, it’s clear that governance enforcement remains weak in many of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Developing countries oftentimes lack the human and financial capital to monitor and protect their natural assets. Improvement will come through better marine surveillance financing and proper showcasing of punishments, such as litigation against illegal fishing vessels. Better dissemination of information between stakeholders, especially as geospatial analysis continues to improve, is paramount.

‘The sea’s common use is destined for all’. Thence Grotius had captured our insatiable demand for oceans. But on the horizon their use faces limits, for we have destabilised their core processes. At the same time, we now understand that their services extend far beyond our previous beliefs. Finally, we have caught sight of their potential to help us fight the problem itself. The best technologies we have are those provided by nature. Protecting and regenerating our oceans is the greatest investment of all.

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