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Blue Economy: oceans as the next great economic frontier

40% of the world’s population live near coastal areas, more than 3 billion people utilize the oceans for their livelihood, and 80% of world trade is achieved using the seas. The oceans, seas and coastal areas contribute to food security and poverty eradication. And yet, the oceans are under severe threat by human activities, where economic profit are at the expense of environmental degradation. Acidification, pollution, ocean warming, eutrophication and fishery collapse are just some of the examples of the consequences on the marine ecosystems. These threats are detrimental to the planet and are long-term repercussions that demand urgent action to protect the oceans and the people who depend on them.


Sustainable Development Goals 14: sustainable use of the oceans

In 2015, all United Nations Member States adopted a development policy on sustainability which centers around the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The 17 goals provide a global blueprint for peace and prosperity of people and the planet and are set to be achieved by 2030. Goal 14, labelled Life Below Water, concerns conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development, and demands international cooperation for the oceans to get back in balance.

Reaching Goal 14 requires universal action to protect the planet and calls for implementation of international forces, through institutional and legal frameworks. Progress has been made, but the targets by 2030 remain a long way off, highlighting the need for action today.

The oceans and seas are a key source to food, energy and minerals, and are being used more and more for multiple sectorial activities. Common examples are fisheries and aquaculture, and the processing and trade of these resources. The maritime transport also plays a big role in the globalized market in the form of containerships, tankers, and ports for the vessels. Furthermore, coastal tourism is the largest business within ocean related activities in terms of employment.

For the past few years, the use of term “Blue Economy” has increased and has e.g. been used by the UN, EU, OECD and the World Bank to explain the nexus between sustainability, economics and the ocean. In fact, the UN notes that the Blue Economy is exactly what is needed to implement SDG 14, Life Below Water.

What is a Blue Economy?

“Blue economy” is an economic term linked to exploitation and conservation of the maritime environment and is sometimes used as a synonym for “sustainable ocean-based economy”. There is, however, no consensus on the exact definition and the field of application depends on organization that uses it. The UN first introduced “blue economy” at a conference in 2012 and underlined sustainable management, based on the argument that marine ecosystems are more productive when they are healthy. This is backed up by scientific findings, showing that the earth’s resources are limited and that greenhouse gases are damaging the planet. Furthermore, pollution, unsustainable fishing, habitat destruction etc. harm the marine life and are increasing day by day.

Dead fish in water
Environmental degradation results in unhealthy ecosystems. Photo by Weidner/Unsplash

The UN specifies Blue Economy as a range of economic activities related to oceans, seas and coastal areas, and whether these activities are sustainable and socially equitable. An important key point of Blue Economy is sustainable fishing, ocean health, wildlife, and stopping pollution. The UN iterates that the Blue Economy should “promote economic growth, social inclusion, and the preservation or improvement of livelihoods while at the same time ensuring environmental sustainability of the oceans and coastal areas”. This points out the importance of global cooperation across borders and sectors. This also indicates that governments, organizations and decisionmakers need to join forces to ensure that their policies won’t undermine each other.

The use of the seas, the oceans and the coastal areas has accelerated the past years. The OECD describes the ocean as the next great economic frontier as it holds potential for wealth and economic growth, employment and innovation. And while the economy includes existing businesses such as fisheries, coastal tourism and shipping, it also focuses on the development of new emerging sectors that were next to non-existent 20 years ago e.g. blue carbon sequestration, marine energy and biotechnology; sectorial activities that create potential and opportunities for training and employment, but also fight climate change.

Benefits of blue economy: create green energy and fight climate change

Blue Economy has the power to obtain better governance of marine ecosystems, lower emissions, a more just health standard and be a player in fighting climate change. In the recent years, emerging sectors within energy have grown exponentially, and oceans are popular sites for renewable energy. Alternative energy sources such as wind energy, hydropower and tidal energy are fitting for marine environments. Especially offshore wind (including floating wind turbines) is fast growing and has around for many years – the first offshore wind park erected in 1991 in Denmark, and the quantity of offshore wind farms was 162 in 2020, according to WFO. The report Offshore Wind Outlook 2019 by the International Energy Agency (IEA), offshore wind power has the potential to generate more than 18 times the global electricity demand today. Wind farms require specific

Offshore wind turbies
Offshore wind energy has become more and more popular around the world. Photo by Shaun Dakin/Unsplash

professions and therefore create jobs in construction, maintenance and administration.

Offshore wind energy is only one example of benefits of Blue Economy. Others are offshore aquaculture (an emerging approach to fish farming), wave and tidal energy, seabed mining and blue biotechnology, which uses, among others, shellfish, bacteria and algae for development in health care and energy production. Moreover, existing industries, such as

shipping and tourism, have potential of growing and become greener with new technologies.

To support the Blue Economy, both the European Union and the United Nations have developed a long-term strategy that aims to support facilitate sustainable ocean-based economic benefits by implementing climate-resilient and inclusive blue economy policies that reduce human impact. Some countries have also taken it upon themselves to implement strategies and policies that support the idea of Blue Economy. Among these are Denmark and Norway that have a clear focus on the shipping industry.

Nordic countries: implementation in shipping


According to the EU, 13% of the overall EU greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector are due to shipping industry. Norway has undertaken to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 compared with the reference year 1990, and for the Norwegian fleet to be climate neutral by 2050. These goals provide a basis for The Green Shipping Programme which aims to seek solutions for sustainable and efficient shipping. The programme is an institutional collaboration between authorities and the private sector, which will accelerate economic growth, increase competition, create new jobs and of course cut emissions.

The programme is made of studies and projects and are crucial in making the Norwegian shipping greener. Around 20 large-scale projects have been introduced, including development of green ports and shuttle tankers running on liquified natural gas. Seven of the projects have been implemented or are under construction.



Like Norway, Denmark has also taken steps towards a greener and more sustainable shipping industry with the strategy “Towards Zero”. Danish Shipping, a business and employers’ organization for Danish Shipping, is the largest single export industry in Denmark and has launched “Towards Zero” which aims to make shipping climate neutral by 2050. Moreover, Danish Shipping works hard on defeating political and financial barriers that hinder climate neutral shipping.

Shipping vessel
Nordic countries have taken it upon themselves to pollute as little as possible in the shipping field. Photo by Ian Taylor/Unsplash.

The initiative is committed to accelerate the transition of green shipping regarding “Fit for 55” and goals set by IMO, a maritime agency of the UN. Among others, Toward Zero endeavors to provide more training place at sea, ensure competition and support continued growth of the Danish merchant fleet industry.


However, not all countries have access to the same resources as European countries and some aspects of the Blue Economy is often forgotten. This present especially poor countries with challenges in the implementation. Challenges related to finance, social justice and science.

Challenges on a global level

Financial barriers

Obtaining a Blue Economy requires a stable economy and long-term financial plans which has become a large obstacle for some countries due to COVID-19. Financial barriers play a big role in the implementation of Blue Economy and it is usually developing countries that pay the price. Some developing countries have high levels of external debt and, therefore, focus won’t be on transitioning the country’s agricultural system towards a bluer one. The transition becomes harder for some countries due to the lack of capacity and technology. Furthermore, the country needs a skilled workforce and therefore training within the field.

Social justice

The UN stresses that equity must not be forgotten when supporting a blue economy. Land and resources often belong to communities, and the interests of communities dependent on the ocean are often marginalized, since large sectors such as coastal tourism are viewed as bringing in a larger profit. This means that Blue Economy must help achieving SDG 14, but not undermine other goals of the 2030 Agenda at the same time.

Science and innovation

The Blue Economy is based on multiple fields within ocean science and therefore needs intersectoral experts and stakeholders. NGO’s, fishers’ organizations, indigenous people and communities are all crucial for an inclusive economy. However, science and innovation are needed to understand the environmental and socioeconomic aspects of a Blue Economy. Thus, the basis of creating a Blue Economy can be demanding and needs numerous experts on the different fields that some countries may not have access to. Developing must then not only rely on their own national experts, but also on the expertise from other countries.

Supporting the Blue Economy transition

While many countries work towards a greener agenda by advancing their ocean economies, achieving such endeavors are still challenging. Global governments need to transition a small part of their economy towards achieving a global, healthy blue economy. A part used for investing in modern infrastructure, technologies, R&D, education and creating jobs. Transitioning away from an agricultural industry towards a bluer economy will be demanding. This means that governments must work together to make blue economies sustainable, share research and know-how.

Multiple global organizations provide dialogue and guidance by creating international events. In beginning of March 2022, The Economist hosted World Ocean Summit on achieving the 2030 targets. In February 2020, The European Commission also hosted One Ocean Summit in Brest, France, to take new steps to strengthen EU leadership in protecting the ocean.  At last, the UN Ocean Conference will take place in June and July in Lisbon and will focus on saving our oceans and protecting our future.

More information here:

Sustainable Development Goals 14

UN report: Promotion and Strengthening of Sustainable Ocean-based Economies

UN report: The Potential of Blue Economy for Small Island Developing States

Oceans Decade: Science as a tool for a healthier ocean

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