Leading the push for a sustainable ocean economy

22 June 2021

Policymakers and experts call on UNCTAD to play a leading role in research, finance and technical assistance to conserve and sustainably use the ocean, seas and marine resources.

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© Tony Vingerhoets

High-level policymakers, diplomats and experts have identified priority areas of action to enable developing countries to harness the benefits of the ocean economy for sustainable development.

During an UNCTAD event held on 9 June to advance discussions ahead of the UNCTAD15 quadrennial conference scheduled for October, hosted by Barbados, they underlined the importance of a sustainable ocean economy for the overall development prospects of coastal developing countries, small island developing states (SIDS) and other vulnerable island nations.

A call for more support

Panellists at the event called on UNCTAD to step up its support to these countries in promoting a sustainable ocean economy.

Barbadian minister of maritime affairs and the blue economy, Kirk Humphrey, said SIDS aren’t responsible for climate change yet they’re bearing the brunt of its growing impacts. “We are certain recipients of the ocean’s discontent, though we were innocent in its offence,” he said.

He underscored the invaluable contribution of the ocean and its resources to the socioeconomic development of SIDS and called for more action to ensure ocean economy activities continue to “produce for people”, while protecting the ocean. 

“That’s why the idea of protecting 30% of the ocean resonates so strongly with me,” he said.

The deputy secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS), Filimon Manoni, echoed the call for increased support and highlighted the need for “special and differential treatment” of SIDS.

Mauritian ambassador Usha Dwarka-Canabady called for “SIDS-specific support measures”, in particular financing and better access to green and blue funding opportunities, as well as “a genuine status for SIDS”.

UNCTAD Acting Secretary General Isabelle Durant acknowledged the need for a “specific status for SIDS” within the multilateral trade system and said UNCTAD15 will present an opportunity for discussions on this.  

Irish ambassador Michael Gaffey highlighted the need to address pressing environmental challenges for global maritime transport, including pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts on ports.

Main messages

The main messages that emerged from the discussions included the following:

  • The ocean is invaluable, its health and the sustainable use of its resources are critical to life and livelihoods; the blue economy holds great promise, and its sustainable development will benefit people and societies.
  • Policy coherence and synergy are needed to make international agreements on sustainable development, climate change, biodiversity, and disaster risk reduction work in tandem and to build back better as part of the post-COVID-19 recovery. 
  • There is an urgent need for innovative financing mechanisms for sustainable technologies, better access to green and blue infrastructure finance, as well as increased capacity-building.

The panellists asked UNCTAD to play a leading role in supporting a sustainable ocean economy, focusing on these key priorities:

1. Facilitate trade and technology transfer for sustainable ocean-based goods and services

UNCTAD estimates the value of exported ocean-based goods and services at least $2.5 trillion annually. To transition to a sustainable ocean economy, participants highlighted the importance of not only green, but also blue technology transfer from developed to developing countries.

UNCTAD has published a classification of ocean-based goods and services, which can contribute to the identification of trade in environmentally friendly ocean-based goods and services as well as in embodied technologies.

Representatives of PIFS and Mauritius requested UNCTAD’s technical support in implementing their strategy for ocean economic diversification and upgrading, as is already happening for Caribbean countries under the UNCTAD-DOALOS Oceans Economy and Trade Strategy Project.

2. Provide technical support for sustainable fish and fisheries management

One in three fish stocks are overfished. For many SIDS, the fisheries sector is of paramount importance for income, food security and livelihoods. About 55% of all the global tuna catch is taken from the west and central Pacific region, Mr. Manoni said.

Several panellists stressed the need for a global agreement at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to eliminate subsidies for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, as well as certain forms of subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing.

Reaching a deal by 2020 was one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals’ targets (SDG 14.6), but negotiations are still are ongoing. The panellists called on UNCTAD to assist in the implementation and monitoring of a future WTO agreement on fisheries subsidies, as well as in the sustainable management of fish and fisheries, particularly in developing countries.

3. Support affordable and accessible maritime transport, infrastructure financing, climate-change adaptation and related technical assistance and capacity-building

Over 80% of the volume of world merchandise trade is carried by maritime transport, from port to port, with SIDS particularly dependent on their ports for trade and tourism, food and energy security, as well as disaster risk reduction.

Mr. Gaffey praised UNCTAD’s TrainForTrade Port Management Programme as “a concrete example of how UNCTAD can bring port communities together to address the challenges and opportunities arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The ambassador of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), Stephen Fevrier, said SIDS need urgent support in addressing the growing impacts of climate change on ports. He called on UNCTAD to provide further technical assistance “to map and reduce vulnerabilities for effective infrastructure adaptation.”

Ambassador Dwarka-Canabady urged UNCTAD to help reduce freight transport costs for SIDS, which had doubled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, increase the maritime connectivity of small ports and assist in addressing ship-source pollution that’s affecting vulnerable SIDS.

4. Support the transition towards zero emissions by strengthening renewable energy

The panellists said transitioning to renewable sources of energy is an important opportunity for SIDS and coastal developing countries to benefit from the ocean’s natural resources while preserving the environment.

Investing in renewable ocean-based energy such as offshore wind can reduce dependency on energy imports and related costs, and ensure economic diversification and upgrading. This requires financial support to ensure investments are viable, especially for SIDS, which lack the means to invest in large-scale infrastructure projects.  

5. Propose a sustainable tourism framework

Tourism is one of the sectors hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with a reduction of over 70% of international tourist arrivals in 2020.

Participants stressed the need to substitute business-as-usual practices with sustainable tourism, which carries the triple promise of higher economic value, better transmission of revenues to local communities and environmental preservation.

If well managed, wealth generated from tourism can contribute to the restoration and protection of coastal and marine areas. Ambassador Gaffey said UNCTAD can help clarify what sustainable and resilient tourism is, to avoid a return to pre-pandemic practices.

6. Create and deepen partnerships with countries and regions

Various participants urged UNCTAD to partner with organizations and countries such as Barbados, Mauritius, the PIFS, the OECS, Partnerships in Environmental Management of the Seas of East Asia, the Indian Oceans Commission and the International Oceans Institute.

They encouraged UNCTAD to collaborate on the acceleration of scientific research and technology transfer with UN agencies such as the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

The event, chaired by Portuguese Ambassador Rui Macieira, was a key moment towards the United Nations Second Oceans Conference to be held in Lisbon, co-hosted by Portugal and Kenya, in June 2022.

It took place as part of the commemorations of World Oceans Day 2021 held under the theme “The Ocean: Life and Livelihoods”.