Building back bluer

by Kate Kooka (Ocean Advisor) and Anthony Cox (Deputy Director), Environment Directorate

Shutterstock.com / Song_about_summer

“We must ‘Build Back Bluer’”, urged Kenya’s Ambassador Macharia Kamau (Principal Secretary in the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs) at a Virtual Ocean Dialogue on the COVID-19 crisis, regional peace and security, and the blue economy. As countries are in the process of rebuilding their economies, this was a clever play on the phrase “Build Back Better” that has caught on as COVID-19 continues to wreak health and economic devastation around the world. The phrase originates from the world of disaster recovery management where it is used to describe the physical re-building of communities, cities and regions after earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis. But as governments and organisations begin to think about a post-COVID world (which still appears some way off for many countries), there is a growing call for a green recovery and to “Build Back Better”. The OECD has added its voice to those calling for a sustainable, resilient recovery in a recent policy brief on that very topic.

But what does it mean to “Build Back Bluer”? Is the ocean so different that it needs its own post-COVID-19 tagline?

COVID-19 impacts the ocean in many ways

The ocean will also figure prominently at this week’s United Nations Summit on Biodiversity, where Heads of State and Government are gathering to discuss “Urgent action on biodiversity for sustainable development”. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of our relationship with nature, while having a destructive impact on human health and the economy worldwide. Ocean-based sectors are no exception: tourism, transportation and shipbuilding, and fisheries and aquaculture have all been massively impacted. The pandemic also raises challenges regarding waste generation, management and recycling practices, with larger volumes of medical waste and increased use of single-use plastics brought about for perceived sanitation. And the ocean is often the end-point for a proportion of this waste: within a few short weeks, we began seeing disposable masks wash up on shores.

Amidst the mounting death toll and deepening economic crisis, we have also witnessed a dramatic, if temporary, drop in some forms of pollution. Less tourism, for instance, has meant less travel and less greenhouse gas emissions (in 2013, the overall carbon footprint of tourism represented 8% of global emissions). It can also mean less stress on sensitive ecosystems, as in Viet Nam’s Cham Island Marine Protected Area and in Venice, allowing the ocean environment some breathing space to recover. These cases have given us a glimpse into what some ocean-based sectors may look like with a bluer tint to recovery.

So what does it mean to build back bluer?

Insights from OECD work on ocean underscores the complex, challenging and interconnected nature of the ocean challenges that governments face. Drawing on the OECD work on marine biodiversity and ecosystem services, coastal adaptation and resilience, fisheries and aquaculture, marine plastics pollution, development co-operation, ocean science and innovation, and sustainable ocean finance, here are four areas where governments can act now, using their recovery and stimulus packages to ensure that we “Build Back Bluer”:

  1. Focus on financing. Aligning existing and future financial flows with sustainable ocean objectives, starting with the removal of potentially harmful subsidies and the taxation of environmentally harmful activities, is key. In many ways, the discussion around sustainable ocean finance is still at a relatively early stage, arguably where the clean energy finance discussion was about 10 years ago. We can draw on the lessons from other areas of green finance to leapfrog the ocean finance discussion to where it needs to be today. Innovative tools can support marine biodiversity financing, many of which can be drawn from terrestrial biodiversity protection. Such tools include blue carbon payments, blue bonds, insurance mechanisms, and debt-for-nature swaps.
  2. Rethink existing business models. This might mean focusing on more sustainable tourism – something that is better for the traveller, better for the ocean and better for local communities. This might also mean a fundamental rethink of the way we consume – a transformation to more circular economies – where waste is reduced and materials are re-used. This might also mean shifts in sectoral ocean policies, like policies to encourage stock growth and increase returns to fishers. It also might mean continuing to move towards reducing emissions from shipping, and rewarding companies that meet sustainability objectives.
  3. Strengthen science and innovation for the ocean. We need to have a better understanding of the ocean and our impacts on its ecosystems to inform policy decisions. The ocean has already provided us with essential tools to advance science:  horseshoe crab blood is needed to manufacture many vaccines – including, most likely, for a future COVID-19 vaccine (though unsustainable fishing practices has led to a population decline). But more than 80% of our vast ocean remains unexplored – who knows what kind of scientific breakthroughs may be lying in the deep blue sea. Government support for science and innovation, including through ocean innovation networks, can help.
  4. Implement a whole-of-government and whole-of-environment approach. The complexity of the ocean – overlapping jurisdictions, competing responsibilities and multi-sector co-ordination – requires a more holistic policy approach than we are currently seeing in many places. Responsibilities for the ocean at the national level are frequently divided between different ministries such as environment, transport, fisheries, development or tourism. Ensuring co-ordination is essential. Marine spatial planning is a critical tool in helping governments to enhance the institutional and governance arrangements in order to reconcile potentially competing uses for the ocean. The immensity of the challenge before us demands that our government bodies are rowing in the same direction.

Building back bluer at the OECD

Taking Ambassador Kamau’s missive to heart, the OECD is helping governments to “build back bluer”. On the occasion of this year’s World Oceans Day on 8 June, the OECD launched its sustainable ocean economy database to provide decision makers with ready access to the state of play on various key ocean-related indicators. An additional interactive web-based platform demonstrates examples of real-world ocean policy action. On 8 September, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría launched Sustainable Ocean for All: Harnessing the Benefits of Sustainable Ocean Economies for Developing Countries. And you can tune in to an expert discussion on 7 October to learn more about Financing a Sustainable Ocean Economy during a dedicated session on Day 2 of this year’s OECD Forum on Green Finance and Investment.

Further reading:

OECD (2020), Sustainable Ocean for All: Harnessing the Benefits of Sustainable Ocean Economies for Developing Countries, The Development Dimension, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD Sustainable Ocean Economy Database

OECD work for a sustainable ocean: Policies in practice

OECD (2019), Rethinking Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, OECD Publishing, Paris.

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