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Looking at the Arctic Blue Economy

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Photo: Sue Novotny / WWFPhoto: Sue Novotny / WWF

This article originally appeared in The Circle 04.16. Read all Circle issues here.

The Blue Economy is an emerging movement involving nations, corporations, and civil society. Judith Kildow says it could also be an important tool in promoting a sustainable Arctic economy. But it needs to be clearly defined.

IN 2012 at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainability, the description began as a land based version of sustainability, but shifted to a focus on the ocean and coasts. This was encouraged by island and developing coastal nations with concerns about the fate of their shorelines and coastal oceans, expanding the blue aspect of the green (land) economy. In parts of the world where nations are just discovering the benefits of offshore economies, governments interpret the Blue Economy as the “Ocean Economy,” embracing all ocean-dependent activities, sustainable or not.

Regardless, the term Sustainable Blue Economy has only recently gained wide usage by economists, corporations and governments in developed nations. A core component of this Blue Economy in Rio was the principle of equity, ensuring that developing countries optimized benefits received from development of marine environments such as fisheries and other offshore production activities. More recently such concepts as gender equality and generation of inclusive growth with jobs for all have gained importance as well. Equity takes on a wider importance in the Arctic, because sustainable local economies of Indigenous peoples are acutely affected by changes underway.

This discussion of the Blue Economy focuses on sustainability that leaves the ocean a better place, not taking too much good stuff out, or putting in too much bad stuff. Breaking it down further, the Blue Economy includes such green technologies as new materials, renewable energy, emissions controls, safe and efficient robotics. A top priority is to employ sound strategies for sustainability, utilizing the best science and technology for monitoring and analyses.

The Blue Economy also includes intergenerational considerations, which means long term economic valuation to ensure that nature’s non-market values are considered alongside traditional metrics of the market economy which tend to have short term revenue goals, often at the cost of long term environmental health. For past decades, the health of our coasts and oceans has been compromised by assaults from land, sea, and air in ways that are socially and economically costly. In the Arctic, these forces have impacts that are much stronger than in other places on earth, due to a fragile natural environment changing at a rapid pace. As melting ice opens more of the Arctic Ocean to economic use, corporations from many countries are investing and planning. Already there are more than 800 known proposals for infrastructure projects in the Arctic ranging from roads to ports to mining to tourism. It is essential to chart a course that balances opportunities for commerce and industry, jobs and revenue, against ecological impacts on the fragile Arctic.

Therefore, the term Sustainable Blue Economy takes on greater significance and urgency in the Arctic than in other regions. The opening of a “new ocean” where relatively little development has occurred offers an opportunity to exercise the political will to implement a strategy to sustain the Arctic ocean and coastal areas in perpetuity. The Blue Economy could be the driving force. As the definition of the Sustainable Blue Economy continues to unfold, the elements that it will encompass will change over time. Sustaining a Blue Economy in the Arctic must acknowledge that the rapid pace of change demands more urgent attention to sustainable principles. Climate change and development impacts threaten Indigenous populations that have relied for generations on natural resources for their survival.

Equity is integral if the potentials of the Arctic are to materialize, as is consensus on sustainable practices among the inhabitants, governments, and developers. At least eight Arctic and subarctic nations have crucial interests in the evolving and uncertain future of this area, so consensus must be reached soon on a definition of the Sustainable Blue Economy, metrics for measuring it, and its principles for implementation. As a bonus, principles established for a truly sustainable Blue Economy framework created for the Arctic might be transferable to other coastal regions.

The promise for blue growth suffers from the absence of sound measurement. Not all countries calculate their oceanrelated Gross Domestic Products (GDP) in the same way. Comparing findings is complicated by differing measurement systems and often-blurred definitions of coastal and ocean activity. Estimating the true size of the flow of goods and services in the global ocean economy is difficult. WWF in 2015 placed the world’s annual “gross marine product” at $2.5 trillion. Less is known about nonmarket goods and services. The value that a protected beach or estuary provides against storm surges and coastal erosion, or the ocean’s capacity to sequester carbon dioxide, is little understood. How much this natural capital is eroded by human activity, and how much benefit is derived from it requires serious consideration for effective decision-making.

Threats to the seas from climate change, sea, air and land-based pollution and over-fishing will persist. In much of the world, the Blue Economy remains “a nascent aspiration, a distraction more “economy” than “blue” (Economist, 2016). The Arctic doesn’t have the luxury to delay while agreeing on terms. A working definition that includes “do no harm to the oceans” would suffice, protecting the fragile Arctic environment while providing justice for Indigenous peoples who depend on its resources.

Judith Kildow is founder and Director of the National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP)

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