The blue economy, or the ocean economy, is a term used to describe the economic activities associated with the oceans and seas. The World Bank defines the blue economy as the “sustainable use of ocean resources to benefit economies, livelihoods and ocean ecosystem health”. The activities commonly understood to represent the blue economy include maritime shipping, fishing and aquaculture, coastal tourism, renewable energy, water desalination, undersea cabling, seabed extractive industries and deep sea mining, marine genetic resources, and biotechnology.

The blue economy is estimated to be worth more than US$1.5 trillion per year globally. It provides over 30 million jobs and supplies a vital source of protein to over three billion people. While it has been eclipsed in recent years by a greater focus on the ‘green economy’ (that is, the role of primarily land-based activities in the economic transformation required to transition to a low-carbon future), a renewed interest in the blue economy (also sometimes referred to ‘blue growth’) is indicated by the OECD prediction that the ocean economy may double in size to $3 trillion by 2030.

There is also increasing investment by governments and companies in nature-based solutions to climate change provided by the oceans. These include carbon sequestration, coastal protection, biodiversity conservation and waste management.

How do the oceans contribute to sustainable development?

There is a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) dedicated to oceans: number 14, ‘Life Below Water’ aims to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources. It sets out seven targets for a sustainable ocean economy by 2030. So far, progress towards reaching these goals has been limited. There have been some small improvements in the sustainability of fisheries and an expansion of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), but these cover only around 7.5% of the oceans.

How are the oceans governed?

Governance of the ocean and the blue economy is both complex and potentially difficult to implement, which has led to fragmented approaches to the sharing of marine resources between nations and impeded understanding of the environmental impacts of the blue economy. Ocean-related regulations apply to Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), which include territorial waters, archipelagos, and the area of sea that extends 200 nautical miles out from countries’ coastlines. The remaining area is called the High Seas (or ‘open ocean’) and accounts for 64% of the world’s oceans.

In March 2023, an historic agreement was reached at the United Nations for a High Seas Treaty which aims to place 30% of the world’s oceans into MPAs to protect wildlife and ensure equal access to marine genetic resources. It also allocates more funds to marine conservation and will mean new rules for deep sea mining. The Treaty will establish a Conference of the Parties (CoP) for oceans, in the same vein as the climate and biodiversity COPs.

Other international agreements on ocean governance that impact the blue economy include: the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which sets out the legal regime for activities on the oceans and seas along with State responsibilities; the Port States Measures Agreement (PSMA), which seeks to prevent, deter and illuminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing through management at Port States; Guidelines for Small Scale Fisheries; and IMO 2023, the International Maritime Organization’s regulations on global shipping.  

How can action on the oceans benefit the climate?

We know that the oceans play an important role in regulating the Earth’s temperature, absorbing carbon dioxide, and supporting biodiversity and livelihoods. But we are only just starting to recognise the extent to which the blue economy impacts climate change.

The High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy estimates that the ocean economy can deliver 21% of the greenhouse gas emission reductions needed to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting average global temperature rise to 1.5°C by 2050. It also suggests that a significant increase in sustainable food production from the oceans (often called ‘blue food’, and including fisheries, seaweed and fish aquaculture and mariculture) could meet the demands of a growing global population and reduce the pressure on land-based food systems. Positive climate benefits can also be generated through ocean finance (or ‘blue finance‘) – the financial tools and investment required to reach a sustainable ocean economy – through which every $1 invested in ocean action could return $5 in benefits.

This Explainer was written by Darian McBain.

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