What colour is the economy? If you agree with Thomas Carlyle and his famous description of economics as the “dismal science,” then you might say grey. But if one colour could be said to represent the future of the economy these days, it is blue. Yes, blue because making the most of the potential of our oceans, seas, rivers and coasts could help broaden the scope of the circular economy and create new opportunities, promoting sustainable, inclusive growth.
Sustainable development for seas and oceans
No less an institution than the European Commission itself has confirmed the boom in the Blue Economy. Its latest annual report reveals that in 2016 the sector accounted for 1.3% of the EU’s GDP with revenues of €566 billion, which amounts to growth of 14% since 2009. The sector also generated €174 billion of added value and created 3.5 million jobs (or 1.6% of all EU jobs). The Blue Economy has thus proved not only capable of rapid growth but also of efficiently weathering the financial crisis, thereby partly softening the impact of the recession on coastal economies. It is no coincidence therefore that Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, France and Greece are Europe’s five largest Blue Economies.
“The Blue Economy’s future is promising. With investment in innovation and through targeted, responsible management that integrates environmental, economic and social aspects, we can double the sector in a sustainable way by 2030”
– Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries
Unleashing the potential of the Blue Economy will involve focusing on a multitude of different sectors, however. That’s aside from fishing, aquaculture, coastal tourism, commercial transport, marine energy (from wave and tidal power to offshore wind farms – 90% of the world’s marine wind turbines are currently in European waters) and emerging industries such as aquatic biotechnologies. It is estimated, in fact, that the number of marine renewable energy-related jobs in Europe could be doubled by 2030. The outlook is equally positive for blue biotechnologies which have applications not just in medicine and pharmaceuticals but also in the food and energy production sectors. The algal biomass segment in Europe alone is worth €1.69 billion and employs 14,000 people. Indeed it has been discovered that not only are microalgae pivotal to photosynthesis in the seas but they can also be used for biofuel production. This was demonstrated by the BIOFAT (BIOfuel From Algae Technologies) programme which led to the creation of pilot production facilities in Italy and Portugal.
So what about marine energy? One particularly salient example is Scotland where an underwater 400-MW tidal power plant is being built at Pentland Firth which will supply power to around 175,000 homes. The turbines used will be smaller than their wind counterparts because seawater is 800 times more dense than air, which means that even a 5-knot (9.26 km/h) current will generate more power than a 349 km/h wind.
Our Enel Green Power company also has a plethora of projects afoot. On 30 July it signed a collaboration agreement with Australian renewable energy development specialist Carnegie Clean Energy Limited (CCE). This was to develop and test CETO 6, the system the latter designed to harness waves to produce power and which is a leap forward with respect to its previous CETO 5 technology. The new plant incorporates on-board electricity generation by means of multiple moorings and PTO (Power Take-Off) modules which convert kinetic energy from waves into electricity. The new CETO 6 system will have a nameplate capacity of 1.5 MW, a significant improvement on the 240 kW delivered by CETO 5.
Enel Green Power is also contributing to the Blue Economy in Italy. It is closely involved in the Blue Italian Growth (BIG) network, a technological cluster that works in a number of areas: the marine environment and the coastline, blue biotechnologies, renewable energy from the sea, marine abiotic and biotic resources, shipbuilding and marine robotics.
Some nations have already gone so far as to appoint a dedicated Blue Economy Minister. A case in point is the Seychelles where a revolutionary agreement on sovereign debt has been signed to protect the sea, marine fauna and coral reefs. The conservation-for-debt agreement between the Indian Ocean paradise archipelago and several funds also involved the foundation set up by actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio. It foresees $20 million of the nation’s debt being paid off in return for the creation of two marine reserves that will help repair the damage to coral reefs and marine biodiversity caused by uncontrolled fishing and tourism. The “debt-for-dolphins” exchange should also safeguard the nation’s natural heritage and its economic future, which is dependent entirely on tourism and fishing.
In short, there are endless shades of blue, not least because, as highlighted by the European Commission, if the ocean were a state, it would be the world’s second largest economy. So woe betide us if we waste these opportunities. We also need to take action now to remove any obstacles.
The circular economy against marine pollution
There are, however, many rocks on which the Blue Economy could founder: from the threat of chemical pollution to illegal fishing practices, climate change, coastal and marine ecosystem erosion and the presence of staggering quantities of rubbish in our seas. This is why in June 2017, the UN organised the first global Ocean Conference at the end of which 139 nations signed the Our Ocean, Our Future: Call for Action declaration and voluntarily committed to adopting long-term strategies to reduce marine pollution and foster the development of sustainable ocean-based economies.
Europe is likewise promoting a host of initiatives: it is collaborating with the Transatlantic Alliance on oceanographic research and with UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. This is in addition to developing the Blue Science Cloud Pilot, which will modernise access to and the management and use of marine and maritime data. It is also supporting marine and coastal biodiversity conservation in the Caribbean basin and collaborating with the World Bank’s fishing programme (Profish).
The individual European states are similarly doing their bit. This is particularly true of France, which has the second largest maritime area in the world and has adopted very effective measures to combat plastic waste-derived marine pollution. Each year over 10 million tonnes of waste end up in the sea. If we do not do something to drastically change this situation, there may be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050.
Environmental development at the basis of an economic revolution
But most of all, the Blue Economy means adopting a whole new way of thinking about the economy and designing lower-impact production and consumption methods. This is the opinion of Gunter Pauli, the Belgian writer and economist who is also the first Blue Economy theoretician and founder of the international Zero Emissions Research Initiative think tank. Pauli argues that we can transition from an economy of scarcity to one of abundance using only “what we already have” if we take our inspiration from nature. His take on the Blue Economy is that it doesn’t require huge investment to save companies. Quite the opposite, in fact, as even with less capital investment, social capital can be built up and job opportunities created. There are already many, many examples of how this could be done: growing mushrooms on coffee grounds, replacing the metal blades used in throwaway razors with silk thread, making jewellery from rice, reusing tomato skins to make solar filters and using orange waste for washing clothes.
In his best-known book “The Blue Economy”, Pauli talks in terms of 100 innovations and 100 million new jobs. So now all we have to do is learn to do things the blue way!