From Jamaica to Palau and Norway to Indonesia, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis is global, and national recovery efforts must be globally focused to seize shared opportunities. Nowhere is this more evident than in the global domain that unites us – the ocean. We now need to harness the potential of 70% of the planet to provide a “blue boost” to our economies, while building a more resilient and sustainable world.
The ocean is central to life on earth. It absorbs a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions and captures more than 90% of the additional heat they generate. The ocean economy is worth over $2.5 trillion annually. It provides seafood to over three billion people each day and a livelihood for three billion. It transports around 90% of world trade. It is a source of energy and key ingredients for fighting disease. For many of us, it is a workplace and a home.
We represent countries that look extensively to the ocean for essential services and provisions, from aquaculture in the Norwegian fjords to tourism and fisheries off Palau. While our challenges are different, we are linked by the fact that the pandemic has put much of this at risk. The global tourism industry faces profound challenges in 2020 and many uncertainties in future years, with any recovery likely to be long and hard. Palau, for example, is projecting a decline of 52% in tourist arrivals in 2020 and 92% in 2021, leading to a 23% decline in GDP. Food security is also at risk. Supply chains have been disrupted due to social distancing and quarantine measures, with the fishing and seafood sectors particularly vulnerable.
As the world takes stock of the impacts and routes to recovery, the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (the Ocean Panel, which we co-chair) is emphasizing that blue nature needs to be central to our thinking. The ocean has an essential role to play, not only in terms of health and medicine, food and energy security, climate-change mitigation and adaptation, and scientific discovery, but also – and perhaps most integral to a post-pandemic future – in strengthening resilience to similar shocks.
To ensure that the ocean can fulfill its role, the road to recovery must include closing the waste loop by accelerating the development of a circular economy. Consider plastic pollution, which scars our landscapes, fills our ocean, and harms the health of the world’s poorest people. Two billion people lack access to waste-management systems, and the pandemic is likely worsening the situation. During the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the generation rate of infectious waste was estimated at 240 liters per Ebola patient per day.
Moreover, ocean pollution goes beyond plastics, and includes environmental contaminants such as pesticides, heavy metals, organic substances, and antibiotics. Research commissioned by the Ocean Panel shows that we must tackle the root causes of all ocean pollution to ensure the health of our planet and human wellbeing.
Consider the ocean’s role in food security. It is a key part of the solution to both the medium-term disruption to food systems and the longer-term challenge of feeding ten billion people by 2050. This is especially true for countries like Palau, where people depend on the ocean for most of their diet. During the Ebola epidemic, West Africa’s fishing industry helped feed the population when agricultural lands were abandoned during the outbreak. Fish played a central role in securing a protein supply for both coastal and inland communities. Research commissioned by the Ocean Panel shows that, with better management and innovation, the ocean could provide more than six times as much food as it does today.
Meanwhile, some of the vulnerabilities in local and international seafood supply chains exposed by the crisis are already being addressed. Supply chains are being made shorter and more resilient, thanks to expanded cold-storage capacity, a larger role for small-scale artisanal fishing, and higher local demand.
Resilience must be an objective of all our economic policies. After all, the global crisis caused by COVID-19 does not render obsolete our long-term climate and ocean challenges; on the contrary, it makes us more vulnerable to them. Nor does it take away the opportunities a sustainable ocean economy affords us. For example, Norway’s economic-recovery investments in green shipping, including new vessels powered by zero-emission energy sources such as hydrogen and batteries, will cut pollution and create jobs.
The case for developing a healthy and sustainable ocean economy is strong. Investing in key ocean actions like shipping decarbonization, mangrove conservation and restoration, sustainable seafood production, and renewable energy development provides global benefits. These include not only financial benefits, but also better health outcomes for consumers, richer biodiversity, and more secure jobs, among others. A sustainable ocean should be seen not just as a conservation imperative, but also as a priority for the future of our economies, ecosystems, and society.
The extraordinary global nature of the COVID-19 crisis means that we must work together to achieve the sustainable future we envision. Within the next year, the Ocean Panel will release an action agenda that sets out a plan that combines effective protection, sustainable production, and equitable prosperity to improve resilience to economic shocks, health crises, and resulting social disruptions. In the meantime, we are working with our fellow Ocean Panel members by sharing challenges and experiences, insights and knowledge, and inviting others to join us.
Taking the steps now to respond, reset, and rebuild through a blue recovery will ensure ocean health and wealth, stimulate our economies, and create a more resilient, sustainable, and prosperous future for us all.
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