Green lessons for the blue economy

Laura Kelly discusses how lessons from the past can help ensure everyone benefits from our ocean, seas and coasts.

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11 December 2018

Laura Kelly is director of IIED’s Shaping Sustainable Markets research group

Fishing in Kenya's Lake Naivasha provides income for local people, but fish stocks have declined sharply due to over-fishing and the diversion of water for agriculture (Photo: Cheryl Q, Creative Commons via Flicker)

Ocean pollution and the threat to marine resources have climbed up the sustainability agenda. Attracting global attention and high-profile political interest, ocean damage is fast becoming the ‘new’ climate change. 

The severity of the problem and efforts to address it have given rise to global conferences, international negotiations and, not just a UN year, but a decade

The media and celebrities have also helped push key issues into the spotlight from the usual – documentaries from David Attenborough and Dame Ellen Macarthur – to the unusual, with actors including Judi Dench and Josh Brolin being photographed naked with fish as part of the Fishlove campaign to raise awareness of the dire threats of overfishing. Horrifying pictures of our seas choked by plastic have been accompanied by alarming statistics: by 2050, the weight of plastic in the ocean will match the weight of fish.  

Governments show they mean business…

The UK is among countries that are considering banning single-use plastics, while others, including Kenya, have already banned plastic bags.

While it’s easy to be sceptical when governments promise legislation that responds to issues in the public eye, some countries are taking it very seriously. When I flew into Nairobi earlier this month, the airline reminded passengers that plastic bags were banned in Kenya, and they could face four years in jail or a $40,000 fine for bringing one into the country!

I was going to Nairobi to participate in the Sustainable Blue Economy conference – part of a run of efforts by the Kenyan government to galvanise global action to protect the ocean. The event, co-hosted with the Canadians and Japan, brought together more than 15,000 people from 183 countries. 

Given the World Bank’s estimate that the blue economy contributes US$3.6 trillion toward the global economy, plus the potential it holds for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and coastal least developed countries (LDCs), it’s not difficult to see why the gathering attracted so many people.

…but will these waves of activity really benefit those who need it? 

These conferences, negotiations and campaigns are making all the right noises. But what are they actually delivering for poor countries and poor people whose livelihoods depend on the ocean? 

IIED’s major programme of work on fisheries and marine ecosystems includes efforts to get small-scale fishing the attention it deserves – it’s an oft-overlooked fact that small-scale fisheries source well over half of the world’s supply of fish, and in some countries, as much as 70%. 

IIED is also providing LDCs and SIDS with the legal, technical and strategic advice they need to influence the policies and international negotiations that will affect their access to ocean resources – to make sure they get their fair share of the $3.6 trillion. 

The Nairobi conference included plenary sessions with heads of government, a business forum, a governors and mayors forum, scientific panels, civil society workshops and a myriad of side events including one IIED organised with the Kenya Green Bonds Programme on innovative financing for the green and blue economy.

A tremendous amount of capital is needed to shift to a sustainable blue economy but there is chronic lack of financing. The event explored practical case studies of public, private and blended financing from across Africa and beyond

We shared information and made valuable contacts. It was encouraging to hear many participants echo what we here at IIED strongly believe: that complex problems of over fishing and costal pollution can only be solved by a truly multi-stakeholder approach, where governments, business, small-scale fishers, the shipping sector and land-based industries such as farmers all come together to define what success looks like.

Staying people-centric

Some commentators have criticised the term ‘blue economy’ for being so vague it has become meaningless (fortunately no one has suggested it’s a ‘blue wash’). Its concept is sound – economic growth, grounded in sustainability, that seeks to improve livelihoods and protect ocean ecosystems. But it is crucial that inclusion – where realities of the poorest people are genuinely recognised – remains at the heart of the agenda and does not, as has been the case with the green economy, become something of an afterthought or only championed by civil society.

Many conference speakers highlighted the importance of inclusivity, giving strong focus to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a robust framework for measuring progress towards a sustainable blue economy. Goals 1 (ending poverty), 2 (ending hunger), 5 (gender equality), 8 (decent work) are all relevant to inclusive outcomes, as well as goal 14 itself, on oceans. 

The conference outcome document, the Nairobi Statement of Intent on Advancing the Global Sustainable Blue Economy (PDF), sets out an agenda with nine priority areas, including four that are key for inclusion: 

  • Employment, job creation and poverty eradication 
  • Ending hunger, securing food supplies and promoting good health and sustainable fisheries 
  • Climate action, agriculture and fisheries, waste management and pollution-free oceans, and  
  • People, culture, communities and societies – the inclusive blue economy.

IIED is committed to progressing these themes. And by pushing governments, business and civil society to do the same, together we can chart a course toward a sustainable blue economy that brings benefits for everyone.

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