Ocean-based industries are worth at least 3.5% of global GDP, a value the OECD predicted will double by 2030. More than 3 billion people rely on the ocean for their livelihoods and more than 350 million jobs are linked to the ocean worldwide.

The COVID-19 pandemic is putting this ocean economy in peril. Productivity and output across tourism, shipping and fisheries are down and job loss is high. Many employed in ocean-based sectors are women and low-wage earners, so the social impacts are considerable. Debt is rising across the ocean economy, while small businesses struggle to stay afloat. Pressure to roll back environmental policies will likely increase, further compromising long-term recovery and economic benefits.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has not changed the severity of threats facing the ocean itself. In some cases, it has intensified them. Climate change, overfishing, pollution and biodiversity loss were eroding the ocean’s ability to sustain livelihoods before the coronavirus pandemic. Now more than ever, we need a healthy ocean to provide the key ecosystem services and benefits crucial for a sustainable future.

The encouraging news is that there are solutions that can improve our ocean while growing economies. A sustainable ocean economy — premised on effective protection, sustainable production and equitable prosperity — should be at the heart of building back better in the wake of COVID-19.

New analysis commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel) shows that every $1 invested in sustainable ocean solutions yields at least $5 in return.

Specifically, investing $2 trillion - $3.7 trillion globally across four key areas — conserving and restoring mangrove habitats, scaling up offshore wind production, decarbonizing international shipping and increasing the production of sustainably sourced ocean-based proteins — would generate $10.3 trillion - $26.5 trillion in total benefits from 2020 to 2050. This is a rate of return on investment of 400 - 615% (calculated using the net benefit estimated to be $8.2 trillion - $22.8 trillion over 30 years).

The benefits are not just financial. They represent economic, environmental, social and health benefits for local economies, communities, businesses and households.

4 Ocean-Based Solutions that Yield High Returns

The four sustainable, ocean-based investments we analyzed come from a 2019 report commissioned by the Ocean Panel, showing that the ocean can play a major role in addressing climate change. They include:

  • Conserving and restoring mangroves.

Every $1 invested in mangrove conservation and restoration generates a benefit of $3. Conservation of existing mangroves yields higher benefits (88:1) than restoring degraded ones (2:1). While both are worthwhile, it’s clear that conserving mangroves now is cheaper than restoring them later.

The quantified benefits include an increase in fisheries productivity, avoided property damages caused by storm surges and carbon sequestration. Unquantified benefits include water regulation, coastal erosion reduction, increase in biodiversity and more tourism revenue.

Communities that depend on mangrove forests for their lives and livelihoods will benefit most. For example, the impacts of the recent Cyclone Amphan would have been more severe if not for the Sundarbans, one of the largest mangrove forests in the world, which absorbed the brunt of the cyclone.

This is a time to enhance protection measures to conserve these ecosystems and incentivize restoration, such as through payment for ecosystem services.

  • Scaling up offshore wind production.

Every $1 invested in global offshore wind production generates a benefit estimated at $2 - $17, depending on the cost of offshore energy production and transmission and the types of generation that would be displaced.

Quantified benefits include reduced risk of premature deaths from poor air quality, reduced risk of damages from climate change and reduced water. A qualitative assessment showed impacts on ocean biodiversity (positive and negative) from increased installation of wind farms and the potential generation of jobs and livelihoods to local communities.

For example, North Hoyle offshore farm UK, which powers about 40,000 homes per year, will prevent the release of more than 160,000 tons of carbon dioxide over the lifetime of the project while permanently employing more than 900 workers. Notably, the Ocean Renewable Energy Action Coalition recently announced its vision for 1.4 terawatts (TW) of offshore wind by 2050 to decarbonize and stimulate economies in light of COVID-19.

Policies such as marine spatial planning will be key to ensuring offshore wind technologies amplify benefits while mitigating any environmental risks to habitats and marine species.

  • Decarbonizing international shipping.

Every $1 invested in decarbonizing international shipping is estimated to generate a return of $2 - $5. Transitioning international shipping to net-zero emissions by 2050 requires significant investment but will be key to realizing the major health and environmental benefits that substantially outweigh the costs, such as reductions in mortality and childhood asthma.

Reducing shipping emissions is also critical to mitigating local and global ocean acidification, which is important for protecting marine species, ecosystems and industries like fisheries and tourism.

While this is a new area, it is promising to see countries like Norway making green shipping part of its economic recovery plan: The country pledged to build new vessels with zero-emission technologies, such as hydrogen and batteries, to cut emissions and create jobs.

Additionally, the Global Maritime Forum’s Getting to Zero Coalition remains committed to decarbonizing shipping by at least 50% by 2050. The Norwegian Shipowner Association’s recent zero-emission shipping strategy and Pacific Blue Shipping Partnership’s similar targets show collective support.

  • Increasing sustainable food production.

Every $1 invested in increasing the production of sustainably sourced ocean-based proteins is estimated to yield $10 in benefits. Meeting the increased demand for ocean-based protein to provide a healthy diet for 9.7 billion people by 2050 — which would replace a percentage of emissions-intensive, land-based protein sources — can be achieved through reforming fishing and increasing sustainable aquaculture.

Both measures will deliver wide-ranging benefits like better consumer health, higher revenues for fishers, lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduced land-based conflicts and lower water use. Sustainably scaling up aquaculture will also be key to meeting global food security targets by providing essential nutrition to low- and middle-income countries.

Securing a Sustainable Ocean Economy in the Wake of Global Economic Crisis

Worldwide, some 300 million full-time jobs could be lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and nearly 450 million companies are facing the risk of serious disruption. GDP is projected to fall in nearly every country in 2020.

Sustainable ocean-based investments can help generate jobs and boost economic recovery in the short-term. While this paper assesses total net benefits over a 30-year time horizon, many of these benefits start accruing within ten years.

For instance, if fisheries management measures are put in place now, fisheries could recover in 10 years and fishers will see increased profits and revenues during this period. Similarly, marine reserves would enhance tourism and fishery profits in adjacent areas; the value from these increased activities can offset the costs in as little as five years.

In the United States, 50 coastal habitat restoration projects would generate 1,409 jobs in the first 18 months. On average, these restoration projects would create 17 jobs per $1 million spent, which is more than three times the rate for other traditional industries, including coal, gas and nuclear energy generation (4.2 to 5.2 per $1 million spent).

The same is true for ocean-based renewable energy development.

For example, in 2014, EU countries installed 7.5 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity. Within five years, employment in continental offshore wind tripled, supporting approximately 75,000 full-time-equivalent workers. Moreover, sector growth has fostered major private-sector investments in wind turbine manufacturing to build a complex supply chain across the continent, leading to further jobs.

These investments would go beyond economic recovery to build long-term resilience against future shocks and help meet sustainability targets. Ocean-based climate change mitigation options could reduce the emissions gap (the difference between expected emissions and levels consistent with limiting global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C/2.7 degrees F) by up to 21% by 2050.

In addition, these benefits touch on a number of sustainable development dimensions — social, health, economic and environmental — that are important for societal well-being and for meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Given the range of benefits, sustainable ocean-based investments are more relevant than ever before. We cannot reduce our ambition. The extraordinary global nature of the COVID-19 crisis tells us we must work together to achieve the sustainable, inclusive future we envision.

Ocean Panel members, for example, are united in putting blue nature at the center of our thinking and accelerate the transition to a sustainable ocean economy. These 14 serving world leaders see the ocean as essential for recovering from the COVID-19 crisis, with co-chairs — leaders from Norway and Palau — envisioning a “blue boost.” And hundreds of thousands of people from around the world participated in the Virtual Ocean Dialogues in June 2020, which brought together leaders from business, governments, civil society and the scientific community to share and scale solutions. The ocean’s role in recovery was top of mind.

The ocean is our partner; it always has been and will be as we plan our economic recovery. A sustainable approach to the ocean is central to the future of economies, natural ecosystems and society.