Executive summary

Achieving sustainable ocean economies has become a global priority. The ocean is at the centre of the livelihoods of more than 3 billion people worldwide, and it is a key life-support system for all life on this planet. However, pressures on the ocean and the ecosystem services it provides have mounted significantly — from overfishing, pollution, and climate change — and are expected to further grow as the ocean becomes the stage for a range of new ocean-related economic activities. These pressures are pushing the health of the ocean to its limits, leading to habitat degradation, ocean warming and acidification, more frequent extreme weather events, and species extinctions. They undermine the ocean’s ability to support long-term socio-economic benefits and sustainable development. Actions to revert these trends are therefore urgently needed: new and traditional ocean-based economic activities need to use ocean resources sustainably and conserve them. In recognition of this, for the first time the world agreed to focus on the ocean in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, through a dedicated Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 14) and ocean action has since become a key priority in international fora, including in recent G7 and G20 agendas.

Achieving sustainable ocean economies goes beyond reaching environmental sustainability. Intrinsically connected with many other SDGs, the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean needs to unlock sustainable development across social, environmental and economic dimensions. It needs to benefit all countries, especially the poorest and the most vulnerable ones, which are highly exposed to the effects of ocean degradation while possessing the least ability to respond. It needs to refocus economic activities and generate new economic and business models that innovatively contribute to both production and ocean health. If pursued in this way, sustainable ocean economies hold the potential to advance progress on key challenges the world faces today: eradicating hunger and extreme poverty, creating more and better jobs, and combatting climate change.

This report brings together OECD’s unique statistical sources and expertise across various policy areas to provide a new and comprehensive baseline of evidence to support developing countries and the international development community unlock this potential of the sustainable ocean economy, turning both emerging and existing ocean-based sectors into catalysts for long-term, inclusive, resilient and sustainable development.

The report highlights that the economies of developing countries rely more, on average, on ocean-based sectors for income and jobs than OECD countries. Data collected for this report on six ocean-based industries1 show that they contribute to more than 11% of GDP in lower middle-income countries and 6% of GDP in low-income countries, compared to less than 2% of GDP for high-income countries in 2015. In some low-income countries and small island developing states, tourism alone and other important ocean-based sectors can account for over 20% of GDP, compared to 2% for OECD countries. Because of this greater reliance on ocean-based sectors, developing countries are likely to face greater risks from rapidly deteriorating marine ecosystems. The evolution of ocean-based sectors could either accelerate progress towards sustainable development or reinforce current trends of environmental degradation and social exclusion.

The report finds significant variations across developing countries, in the potential benefits and risks of a growing global ocean economy. So far, the East Asia and Pacific region recorded the fastest acceleration in value added of the ocean economy, from USD 157 billion in 2010 to over USD 175 billion in 2015, largely driven by the People’s Republic of China. In low-income and lower middle-income countries the marine fisheries sector is particularly dominant, accounting for 6% and 8% of GDP respectively. Some countries are home to vast untapped marine resources, but emerging ocean-based sectors, such as deep seabed mining, could have potentially huge negative environmental impacts. It is important that developing countries therefore be in a position to assess and balance the risks and rewards associated with developing these industries and integrate community interests as well as sustainability and environmental concerns from the outset.

Achieving a sustainable ocean economy requires a better alignment of policies across multiple sectors. If policy making across the ocean economy deals with sectors in isolation and without a coherent conceptual frame, multiple and sometimes conflicting policy goals can emerge. Such fragmented policy making will not be sufficient to bring about the urgent and systemic changes required for a sustainable ocean economy. Rather, more holistic and integrated policy approaches are needed to ensure policy coherence, identify and manage trade-offs between sector-specific objectives, and take advantage of synergies where policies can deliver benefits to multiple sectors. The report presents an array of both sector-specific and cross-sectoral policy options to steer developing countries’ ocean economies towards sustainability, including marine spatial planning, ecosystem-based fisheries management systems, and economic instruments such as taxes on plastic waste and marine pollution, fees and charges on the use of marine resources, and other incentives for sustainable tourism. The report highlights the importance of factoring in the value of ecosystems into economic decision-making frameworks, scaling up public finance in innovative ways, and investing these resources more efficiently and strategically. Several economic instruments are being used to promote a more sustainable production and consumption patterns across ocean-related sectors, but there is substantial scope to scale these up. These instruments also can generate revenue that could be channelled back into ocean conservation, used to fund sustainable investments directly or to actively co-create markets and tilt the playing field in the direction of sustainability.

However, developing countries often have limited access to the finance, policy evidence, innovations and science needed to realise sustainable ocean economies. Therefore, development co-operation has an essential role to play to facilitate such access, as well as to promote international policy coherence and a reset of international finance for the global ocean economy to truly integrate sustainability and benefit developing countries. Despite the international community’s growing interest in ocean matters, the report finds that there remains a lack of common understanding, definitions and principles with which to align co-operation efforts in support of sustainable ocean economies. While some providers have a long track record of support for specific ocean-based sectors, few have a holistic understanding of the sustainable ocean economy, and most lack dedicated development co-operation strategies as well as implementation and monitoring tools.

To help quantify development finance for the sustainable ocean economy and map the range of sustainable activities, this report introduces the first official tracking of official development assistance (ODA) in support of the ocean economy. Furthermore, it provides an estimation of how much of this contributes to a sustainable ocean economy by integrating sustainability. According to this analysis, over the 2013-18 period, an average of USD 3 billion of ODA a year was allocated for the ocean economy and an even smaller volume, USD 1.5 billion on average a year, was allocated in support of the sustainable ocean economy, equivalent to a mere 0.8% of global ODA over the same period. Not only are ODA flows for the sustainable ocean economy small, they could also be employed more effectively. Currently, they are highly concentrated in three sectors – maritime transport, fisheries and marine protection – suggesting that more could be done to support the range of existing and new ocean-based sectors and thus foster greater economic diversification and resilience. Further, increases in ODA for the ocean economy have supported the expansion of ocean-based industries – largely maritime transport –without increasing the sustainability of these sectors. The report identifies the range of actions to enhance sustainability and specific examples across six ocean-based sectors/areas: sustainable fisheries, sustainable tourism, renewable ocean energy, green shipping, ocean conservation and the reduction of ocean pollution. These examples contribute to a common understanding of what constitutes sustainable activities across ocean-based sectors and offer insights into replicable practices.

In addition to directly funding sustainable projects, development co-operation is helping to align private finance to the sustainable ocean economy. Through the catalytic use of guarantees, syndicated loans and other ODA instruments, in 2013-17 development co-operation leveraged USD 2.96 billion of private finance for the ocean economy, 43% of this supporting ocean-based industries and ecosystems and 57% for land-based activities that reduce negative impacts on the ocean such as waste management, sanitation and water treatment. Development co-operation has also proved critical for developing innovative financial instruments for attracting financing for sustainable ocean economies, as blue bonds, debt for ocean swaps, innovative insurance schemes and ocean impact investment funds. Increasing funding towards the sustainable ocean economy needs to go hand in hand with diverting and re-orienting finance away from harmful and unsustainable activities, which often have the greatest negative impacts in developing countries. Therefore, development co-operation needs to support policies, regulations and financial levers to integrate sustainability requirements into traditional financial services and investments, in financial markets (e.g. stocks and bonds), alongside credit markets (e.g. loans or bonds).

Sustainable ocean economies are far from being a reality in developing countries just as in OECD countries, but this report provides a baseline of evidence and numerous positive examples to build a more coherent and effective approach to sustainable ocean management and effective development co-operation in its support to allow developing countries to harness the benefits from sustainable ocean economies.


← 1. Marine fishing, marine aquaculture, marine fish processing, shipbuilding, maritime passenger transport and freight transport.

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