Harnessing the benefits of the ocean economy for sustainable development – High-level panel discussion on the road to UNCTAD15

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UNCTAD online event, 2 – 4.30 pm CEST

Official UNCTAD 15 pre-event


A sustainable and resilient ocean economy is vital for achieving the policy objectives set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as well as other international agreements, including the SAMOA Pathway, Paris Agreement, the Convention of Biological Diversity and the Sendai Framework. For small island developing States (SIDS) and other vulnerable island nations, as well as coastal developing countries, the sustainable development of the ocean economy, including fisheries and aquaculture, coastal tourism, maritime transport, offshore hydrocarbon and renewable energy, ecosystem services and the potential use of marine genetic resources, holds considerable promise. At the same time, these economies face important trade-related and environmental challenges, including marine and coastal pollution, ocean acidification, natural disasters and climate change impacts, as well as constraints in terms of geography, connectivity and capacity.

While the COVID-19 pandemic and its extensive socio-economic impacts may give rise to new priorities, it underlines the critical importance of openness, trade and infrastructure readiness, economic diversification, risk-assessment and resiliency building. Changing circumstances arising from the impacts of the pandemic will need to be considered as part of future trade, logistic and development strategies going forward.

Key issues for consideration

Sustainable trade in ocean-based goods and services. UNCTAD estimates the value of tradable oceans-based goods and services is about $2.5 trillion annually. Oceans and seas support almost 3 billion people living by the coast. However, the overall value of key ocean assets is much larger and has been estimated conservatively to be at least $24 trillion. There is a need to introduce significant structural changes in our economies, on how we trade, patterns of consumption and production, food and transport systems, in ways that may have seemed too disruptive or expensive before. These changes are needed to ensure the sustainability of oceans.

Fisheries and aquaculture. Fish is one of the most internationally traded foods, with a total export value of $164.1 billion in 2018. Developing countries have a share of about 54 per cent by value and 60 per cent of traded quantities and, with a net revenue higher than that of all other agricultural commodities combined. However, we have reached the limit of what can be harvested from the ocean. To ensure the sustainable use of marine resources requires innovative policy, regulatory and entrepreneurial oceans economic approaches including in the way to trade and conduct business. It should also include efforts to conclude a multilateral fish subsidies agreement that would allow phasing out harmful economic incentives for stocks sustainability and to channel fresh resources towards blue investment.

Sustainable shipping. Over 80 per cent of the volume of world merchandise trade is carried by sea, from port to port, with around 60 percent of seaborne trade loaded and unloaded in developing countries. For SIDS and other island nations, shipping and seaports are lifelines for external trade, food and energy security, and tourism, as well as in the context of DRR. At the same time, SIDS face particular transport-related challenges, including limited connectivity to global shipping networks, high transport costs, and vulnerability to ship-source pollution, as well as climate change, which need to be addressed as part of sustainable development strategies and plans. Initiatives to reduce emissions from maritime transport and increase energy-efficiency, including those under the auspices of the IMO, are important for achievement of global climate goals and can also reduce the carbon footprint for regional value chains and developing country exports.

Climate resilient ports. Seaports are essential to all ocean economy activity. They provide access to global trade, markets, and supply-chains for all countries, and are integral to maritime transport, as well as fisheries, offshore energy exploration and economic activities in coastal zones. However, these critical assets are at considerable and growing risk of climate change impacts from coastal flooding and extreme events. In the absence of adaptation, related damage, disruption and delay may have important trade-related repercussion and compromise the sustainable development prospects of vulnerable island nations and coastal populations. Multifaceted and innovative approaches to adaptation and resilience building will be required to address this challenge, and upscaled capacity-building will be critical for those at greatest risk.

Sustainable tourism. Tourism represents a significant part of the ocean economy in many parts of the world.  At the same time, it has been one of the most impacted oceans-based sectors because of the COVID-19 pandemic with a reduction of over 70 per cent in international tourists’ arrivals in 2020. Rebuilding inclusive, resilient, and sustainable tourism will require fresh investment that protects and regenerates the ecosystems on which it depends and reinvest tourism revenues into local communities to build capacity and increase local employment, diversify economic opportunities and increase resources for coastal and marine restoration and protection.

Sustainable offshore energy. Upscaling capacity for energy efficiency and renewable energy generation (including offshore) may also bring major co-benefits, in terms of climate change mitigation and adaptation (e.g. to the impacts of rising temperatures), as well as reduce dependency on energy imports and related expenditure. Exploring ways to increase investment in alternative energy sources and low-cost innovations will be key in diversifying the energy mix in many SIDS and coastal developing countries.

Objectives of the HL panel discussion

While the ongoing pandemic has given rise to a range of new challenges, the UNCTAD15 Conference, to be held from 3–7 October 2021, offers a timely opportunity for consideration of policy responses that support blue COVID-19 recovery strategies and address the socio-economic and environmental challenges that coastal developing countries and vulnerable SIDS face in harnessing the benefits of the ocean economy. This HL panel discussion, held on the margins of the UN World Oceans Day provides a platform for exchange on some of the key challenges and opportunities to help identify priority areas for accelerated policy action and inform related intergovernmental processes,  particularly  UNCTAD15 and the 2nd UN Ocean Conference in 2021.

For further information, see the UNCTAD meetings website. To register, please go to https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_84IM29_nTIy42QLnYuvIxQ


Image Credit: https://unctad.org/meeting/unctad15-pre-event-harnessing-benefits-ocean-economy-sustainable-development
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