The Blue Economy took centre stage at the 43rd Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Indonesia recently. Most notably, after many months of development, the intergovernmental organisation’s Blue Economy Framework was formally and enthusiastically endorsed by the ten participating member states.
As 66 per cent of the total Southeast Asian area is covered by seas and oceans, it is unsurprising that the Blue Economy – a holistic approach to sustainable management of marine and maritime matters – is being dubbed as ASEAN’s ‘new engine of growth.’ Aiming to ‘guide ASEAN Blue Economy initiatives while encouraging regional integration and cooperation,’ the Framework articulates three overarching guiding principles (value creation, inclusivity and sustainability). These influence the focus of three key strategies (for conservation management; science, technology and innovation; and related to existing and emerging priority sectors). In turn, the implementation of those strategies will be made possible by four ‘blue enablers,’ which range from capacity building to innovative finance mechanisms.
This elevated profile for the Blue Economy has not only been witnessed in Southeast Asia; it has been rising in prominence globally over the past few years. The term ‘Blue Economy’ grew out of the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) in 2012. ‘The Green Economy in a Blue World’ Report (UNEP 2012), produced in the run-up to Rio +20, elaborated on the need for applying the Green Economy approach to the ocean and examined case studies related to industries such as aquaculture and marine mining. Many more definitions and underpinning elements have been articulated in subsequent years. What perhaps may have slipped under the radar, however, is quite how prominent the Blue Economy has now become within the day-to-day realm of international relations. A review of activities over the past few months underlines the breadth of approaches.
Blue sky thinking
Kenya has recently highlighted Blue Economy possibilities in formal diplomatic engagements with Mozambique, Pakistan, Israel, Egypt and Canada. At the launch of a joint Kenyan-European Union fisherfolk empowerment project in May, the EU Ambassador to Kenya, Henriette Geiger, suggested that Kenya’s Blue Economy “could grow four times if adequately supported and sustainable policies enacted.”
Elsewhere in Africa, Seychelles and Mauritius committed to greater engagement on the Blue Economy; the Russian Ambassador to Seychelles celebrated his host country as a global leader in Blue Economy matters; Tanzania and Switzerland highlighted Blue Economy potential in a new deal to boost bilateral trade; and Nigeria was feted as ‘the gateway to unlocking the potential of the African Blue Economy’ by a Korean Deputy Minister.
In Asia, the Prime Minister of Timor-Leste has called for assistance from Portugal to help develop its Blue Economy; the Prime Minister of Bangladesh offered land to the Ambassador of Netherlands to encourage inward investment in the country’s shipbuilding sector; and Indonesia and South Korea focused on climate change mitigation and marine aquaculture technology as part of broader Blue Economy discussions.
What perhaps may have slipped under the radar, however, is quite how prominent the Blue Economy has now become within the day-to-day realm of international relations
Why so blue?
One of the reasons why the Blue Economy is shifting to the centre stage of international relations is its scale, as the concept draws together an alluring range of environmental and socio-economic development issues. Far from just being concerned with a few marine and maritime industries, a truly strategic approach to the Blue Economy will encompass environmental sustainability; climate change; disaster preparedness; renewable energy; maritime security; employment; export value; business sector growth; the education of the next generation of ocean advocates and marine and maritime workforce; and more.
The cross-cutting nature of the Blue Economy is further strengthened through analysis of its relation to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While SDG 14 (Life Below Water) is what often initially comes to mind, the ASEAN Blue Economy Framework rightly highlights 12 additional SDGs with direct relevance. These include SDG1 (no poverty), SDG5 (gender equality) and SDG8 (decent work and economic growth) – all underlining how the Blue Economy occupies much greater relevance to national development plans than may at first be realised, too.
With such an array of positive cross-cutting themes to refer to, it is no surprise that embassies across the world now regularly issue statements announcing the initiation of specific Blue Economy-themed international collaborations.
The relevance of the Blue Economy to climate change mitigation has also been increasing in prominence at the past two UN Conference of the Parties (COP) events. In 2021, the UN Environment Programme held an event focused on funding a sustainable Blue Economy; Lloyd’s Register Foundation led talks on sustainable supply chains in the Blue Economy; and the EU’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries highlighted the role of the oceans in tackling climate change, couched within a broader Blue Economy framework.
Following up at COP27 in Egypt in 2022, there were over 300 ocean-themed events: there was more focus on the role of blue finance mechanisms; a high-level panel focusing on integrating Blue Economy plans into updated Nationally Determined Contributions on climate change; and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO co-organised a Blue Carbon Implementation Lab.
Blue Economy/climate engagement is not just restricted to COP gatherings and is beginning to bleed into more regular dialogue in other fora. In recent days, for example, Commonwealth Secretary-General Baroness Scotland discussed climate-themed Blue Economy issues with Sri Lanka (focusing on mangroves and carbon markets) and Somalia, Mozambique and Colombia (on the general potential of the Blue Economy), as well as highlighting the ambition of the Commonwealth’s Blue Charter programme of investment and collaboration.
Such high profile is part of a growing understanding that – while our seas oceans are under huge threat from a warmer climate – they can play a significant role in tackling climate change. Holistic national sustainable Blue Economy strategies will be crucial building blocks to realise such possibilities, but a global approach is required. The 22-page ASEAN Blue Economy Framework mentions ‘climate’ 15 times, so it looks likely that the relationship between the ocean and climate change – an issue that can only be tackled by robust international collaboration – is set to rise in prominence in the coming years.
Far from just being concerned with a few marine and maritime industries, a truly strategic approach to the Blue Economy will encompass environmental sustainability; climate change; disaster preparedness; renewable energy; maritime security; employment; export value; business sector growth; the education of the next generation of ocean advocates and marine and maritime workforce; and more.
In the UK, 20 Ministers from 15 Caribbean nations are scheduled to attend the inaugural UK-Caribbean Trade and Investment Forum in November. Led by development consultancy DMA, in partnership with UK Export Finance and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the event will provide a platform for senior country representatives to present their development agendas and highlight ‘bankable projects’. A discrete session is planned on the Blue Economy, reflecting the growing importance of the approach across the region.
The main tagline of the Belize Investment Summit at the beginning of the month was: ‘Endless Opportunities in the Blue Economy.’ At the event, Kennedy Carrillo, CEO of the Ministry of Blue Economy and Civil Aviation, hailed the Blue Economy as providing a unique opportunity to “move away from the perception of Belize as a Small Island Developing State to a Big Ocean State, because of the potential of our blue assets.” This ambition is clearly not just talk, as the summit opened with Prime Minister John Briceño signing off on a $7 million loan with the Inter-American Development Bank to bolster the sustainable growth of its Blue Economy. With a 25-year repayment period, the loan will facilitate the integration of technology and science in the fishing industry, leading to the creation of evidence-based policies within a sector that currently represents 12 per cent of the country’s total exports and employs over 3,000 fishers.
Earlier in the year, Belize and the UK Government also launched a new Blue Economy collaboration at the British High Commissioner’s Residence. Part of the Ocean Country Partnership Programme, the Belize scheme aims to strengthen marine science expertise; develop science-based policies and management tools; and creating educational resources for coastal communities. Funding for the programme comes from the Blue Planet Fund via Official Development Assistance (ODA).
Belize’s commitment to fostering blue partnerships also applies to relationships closer to home; in May the cabinet approved a new MoU with Barbados to deepen cooperation on Blue Economy matters.
Such collaboration on the Blue Economy is further evident across Latin America and the Caribbean, as exemplified in recent diplomatic engagements between Barbados and China (highlighting marine spatial planning); Guyana and the UK (a commitment to ocean protection); and at the first Saudi-Caribbean Forum in the Dominican Republic.
The bigger picture
In all parts of the world, then, we see the Blue Economy becoming central to diplomatic relations, as nations seek to use the emergence of this holistic development approach as a focal point for deeper collaboration and mutual benefit.
While we can expect this to continue to rise in prominence in bilateral arrangements, the launch of the ASEAN Blue Economy Framework points to even greater possibilities – of true international collaboration leading, hopefully, to transformative results. While individual diplomatic engagements and Blue Economy trade agreements will continue to proliferate, there is an opportunity for the sum to genuinely become greater than the constituent parts, as a more mature understanding of shared marine and maritime opportunities and responsibilities emerges.
Indeed, this more coordinated approach was called for by the African Union Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR) in March of this year. Citing the Africa Blue Economy Strategy (ABES) as a useful framework and starting point, the organisation highlighted that even greater strategic alignment would allow African nations to present a ‘unified front in international forums.’ Delegates at the related conference were even given mentoring on how to negotiate in international forums on such issues, with the ultimate aim of ensuring “increased contribution to food and nutritional security, poverty alleviation and economic growth.”
As the Blue Economy promises global progress on critical issues such as marine ecosystem health, coastal defences, the sustainability of fish stocks and global climate change progress, the adoption and embedding of sustainable Blue Economy principles is genuinely of benefit to everyone. Greater collaboration – through ocean technology transfer; marine science and maritime security partnerships; and the sharing and joint exploration of environmental data – will mean that shared resources can go further and achieve more positive outcomes. If nations can continue to do more to all speak the same language when it comes to the Blue Economy, we all might win.