The EU’s New Approach on the Blue Economy: Sailing towards a more sustainable future or to extinction?

The EU’s New Approach on the Blue Economy: Sailing towards a more sustainable future or to extinction?

‘How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean’– Arthur C. Clarke

Being the largest ecosystem on earth, the ocean is undeniably the lung of the planet, accounting for 50-80% of oxygen production on earth, earning the title of Earth’s Oxygen Bank. Moreover, an estimated 80% of the planet’s biodiversity is hosted by it as well as providing half of the world’s population with food.[1] Life under water often falls short of the deserved consideration as its vital role for the ecosystem and our lives is usually imperceptible to the naked eye. Major industries such as shipping, fishing, aquaculture, and coastal tourism are interdependent with ocean health.  The Blue Economy has raised a considerate amount of attention on its side in these past years. Despite encompassing many activities, as shown in the picture below, this approach aims at enhancing resilience through a sustainable path based on a fragile, and yet vital, balance between society, environment, and economy.

The Blue Economy derives at large from the concept of a green economy, which is defined by the United Nations as one “that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”.[2] The term green economy emerged first as it was mentioned in the 2012 United Nations summit on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20). However, the maritime nations together with small and medium islands, being the countries with most at stake, argued that the sea-related environmental risks were not adequately addressed.

Reference picture: World Bank, <<What is blue economy?>>, June 6 2017, Infographic, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/infographic/2017/06/06/blue-economy

            In the following years, to give the due attention to their endangered ecosystems, the term Blue Economy was finally coined and, to be truly conceived as sustainable, was later coupled with the idea of a circular economy. Nonetheless, as it is happening across all sectors and ecosystems on this planet, in the last decade the appetite for profit and expansions over this sector has been steadily increased and are expected to triple between now and 2030.[3] If on the one side these sectors are rising dramatically, reducing Europe dependency on imports, on the other, though, the risks stemming from such unsustainable activities are continuing to scratch the impoverished bottom of our “blue barrel” on which Europe economic growth depends. Therefore, despite being essential motors for our world, the markets have to align within the ecological boundaries of our ocean by undergoing a radical but crucial transition of their maritime policies. To be fully and successfully enforced, such implementation has to be financially supported by adequate economic and legislative incentives, reliable public and private investments.[4] Additionally, in order to raise awareness and speed up the legislative process, the public sphere is summoned to step up and mind that this is not a zero-sum game and if it were, nature would have the best on us. Therefore, to avoid catastrophic consequences, the economy and ocean finance have to take major steps forward a sustainable path.

Any action away from this would cost trillions at first and our extinction at last. To put into numbers, as the figures show below, despite a small contraction of 7.7% in 2020 due to the spread of COVID-19, according to the latest Commission’s blue indicators, the relative size of the EU Blue Economy in terms of GVA trillion has grown by 6.3% in 2021 registering an annual turnover of €750 billion and an employment rate close to 5 million people, ranking the EU Blue Economy the 7th largest economy in the world.[5]

Reference : https://www.wwf.eu/what_we_do/oceans/promoting_a_sustainable_blue_economy/

While conservation of natural capital is mandatory for the EU if it wants to be on track with the Sustainable Development Goals of 2030, the Blue Economy is an ever-more booming energy sector. In fact, according to the same report, the innovative areas such as Marine renewable energy, Blue bio-economy, and biotechnology to mention a few, make the EU a colossal leading energy host accounting for 70% of global ocean energy[6]. Hence, by being a cardinal player for the global economy, the blue economy is increasing its appealability in the eyes of investors and stakeholders offering a myriad of opportunities, resources, and great turnovers. However, as echoed by the community of scientists and several marine-related NGOs such as Sea Sheppard, the rush for the so-called blue gold carries serious side costs that are worth noting.

Due to the rapid and ever-growing economic appealability, its unsustainable growth will retaliate in losses in natural capital and soaring environmental disasters which in turn will have dramatic effects at the financial level. In fact, with the markets fluctuating like a stormy sea, the economy will eventually see the backfire of its unsustainable marine-related endeavors. Hence, to pursue a sustainable development that lives in perfect harmony with the ecosystem on which it depends, the Commission in its new approach for the Blue Economy and several reports published has remarked the need to support policymakers with sound and transparent analysis. In doing so, the EU will be able to design a new organic framework that will smooth the green transition in the most cost-effective way possible.

The Blue Economy Policy trainline:

The newly proposed plan to enhance a sustainable blue economy was first introduced by the Council within Regulation (EC) No 2371/2002 on the conservation and sustainable exploitation of fisheries and resource under the Common Fisheries Policy. In 2007, to respect the ecosystem approach that Member States signed in various international agreements such as the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002, the Commission launched the Integrated Maritime Policy (COM (2007) 575 final and SEC (2007) 1278) which embodied the overarching framework for integrated action in the maritime sector as well as its environmental pillar, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive[7]. In short, an ecosystem approach refers to one which “strives to balance diverse social objectives, by taking into account knowledge and uncertainty about biotic, abiotic, and human components of ecosystems and their interactions and applying an integrated approach to fisheries within ecologically meaningful boundaries”. [8] For the first time in the Union’s policymaking history, an ecosystem approach was being endorsed wherein the limits of all ecosystems were finally acknowledged.

From this pivotal moment for the European biological diversity, it followed a Communication (COM(2012) 494 FINAL) from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and Committee of the Regions on the Blue Growth in 2012.[9] Throughout the document, the executive presented several opportunities for marine and maritime sustainable growth that would boost a back-then-stumbling economy. According to the communication, the EU’s blue economy represented 5.4 million and a gross added value of almost 500Eur billion per year counting for 75% of Europe’s external trade and 37% for the internal one.[10] Thus, the fact that seas and coasts’ activities are key drivers for the EU’s economy is not a surprise. However, during those years there had been extensive technological signs of progress and a substantial determination for sustainable innovation seen in robotics and video surveillance in offshore deep waters, aligning environmental targets with the idea of innovation and growth, and lastly a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by investing on renewable energy.

As part of Europe 2020 strategy, the Communication renewed the Commission’s Integrated Maritime Policy as an integral element for the economy of small and medium enterprises and the Member States at large.  Although not diving into the climate-change-related risks nor proposing any concrete solutions to them as thoroughly as in the proposal of last May, the Blue Growth strategy in 2012 had similar areas of focus spanning from blue energy to increment the efficiency of European renewable energy resources, aquaculture in which the EU had accounted for 25% of the animal protein consumed worldwide and maritime, coastal and cruise tourism which constituted the largest single maritime economic activity of the Union.[11] Moreover, next to these three areas, the Communication added two more branches, namely Marine mineral resources and Blue biotechnology to fuel long-term growth and jobs in the blue economy according to the Europe 2020 strategy.

The blue report compares all businesses that are marine-based or marine-related, encompassing a wide range of sectoral and cross-sectoral economic activities related to oceans, marine life, coasts. On the one hand, marine-based include activities such as fishing and aquaculture, marine minerals, marine renewable energy, desalination as well as maritime transport and coastal tourism. On the other hand, marine-related activities concern the use or production of services or goods from activities such as seafood processing, biotechnology, shipbuilding and repair, port activities, digital services, etc.[12] Interestingly enough, although compared to the Regulation of 2012, it further acknowledges the major influence they pose for the worsening of climate change and biodiversity, the Report however fails at quantifying the economic value in terms of provision of resources, habitat for marine life, carbon sequestration and coastal recycle. Truth to be told, if the ocean were to have a price based on the quality of its water comprising the trade-off between the reduction of biodiversity and increase of fish consumption, that price is seeing a climate-hazardous downfall that will indeed put at risk the whole sector, but most importantly the planet altogether.

On May 17 2021 the European Commission launched a new proposal for a sustainable blue economy in the EU in which industries and ocean-seas-related businesses will undergo a major green transition as part of the overarching European Green Deal trajectory. In simple terms, a sustainable blue economy is imperative for the achievement of zero-net carbon emission by 2050 and the 55% target established within the European Green Law in line with the formerly accepted guidelines of the UN Paris Agreement.[13] The European Green Deal and the long-awaited Recovery Plan to be released in July will sow the seeds for the European economy for the years to come, if not decades. Forests are generally conceived as the most important ecosystem for the survival of our planet.

Nonetheless, a thriving marine one is of vital importance for our survival since it is the main climate regulator we have. Oceans in this regard offer clean energy and are the greatest provider of oxygen and food on the planet. Indeed, as it is often solely attributed to forests, due to their immensity and abundance of marine plants, oceans detain the title of largest carbon-sinks.[14]  Moreover, establishing an all-around new sustainable approach for the blue economy will echo the secondary, but not less important, task of ensuring a green and inclusive cost-effective upturn from the pandemic. Only recently the EU’s Member States were finally able to strike an agreement on the Recovery Plan which is meant to inject approximately 650 €billion in forms of loans across Europe. Indeed, 37% of its budget was vowed to the green transition which sparked a few questions on how the Commission wants to strengthen green resilience and even stronger mitigation across its blue economy.[15]

To shed light on how precisely the blue economy is meant to contribute to the European Green Deal objectives, the concept of decarbonization best sums it up. In fact, by decarbonizing maritime transport and fishing, according to the latest Commission reports, the greenhouse gas emissions, air, water pollution, and underwater noise will witness drastic reductions. On another note, taking the ocean up to its potential, there is an unlimited amount of energy that can be produced without emitting a single particle of greenhouse gas. Innovations are usually preceded by a frequent delay at their implementation stage due to the lack of information available at the level of both government and the public sphere. Especially when it comes to the sensitive and yet urgent issue of climate change, there is often a misconception widely spread among these two levels that impede any substantial development to go forward. For this reason, the Commission, in its newly designed approach for the blue economy, is deeply committed to lay down robust foundations by intensifying measuring and monitoring of the socio-economic impact of this field taking into account its environmental implications. Although being referred to as the “stick in the wheel” by the hastiest policymakers and stakeholders, focusing on blue-sustainable-awareness does indeed bring significant economic advantages in the long run.[16] In gaining a thorough understanding of the richness of oceans and coastal regions, both policymakers and civil society can help the ecosystem to regenerate while directing their investments towards a positive recovery. Human activities, which vary from lowering fish consumption, removing plastic waste to producing offshore renewable energy, have the responsibility to ensure that oceans thrive again over time. 

As the Executive Vice-President for the Green Deal Timmermans stated that “Healthy oceans are a precondition for a thriving economy. Pollution, overfishing, and habitat deconstruction, coupled with other major effects of the ongoing climate crisis, pose a serious threat to the rich marine biodiversity that the blue economy depends on.” Moreover, after having explicitly acknowledged the ever-growing fragility of the marine habitat, he argues that “We (people) must change tack and develop a sustainable blue economy where environmental protection and economic activities go hand in hand.”[17] Although believing that environmental protection and the economy could live happily ever after in a somewhat healthy relationship is a very promising wish, we need to be more realistic and face reality. As of economy is partaken right now, the relationship between business and environment will continue to fuel a zero-sum game that will likely be set on an ever-more unsustainable path. Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for the Environment, Fisheries and Marine Affairs seems to share this view to some extent. In fact, in a recent interview, he argued that “the pandemic has hit the marine economy sectors in different, but profound ways. We (European citizens) have an opportunity to start afresh, and we want to make sure the recovery shifts the focus from mere exploitation to sustainability and resilience”.[18]

What does it mean to be truly green? According to Commissioner, to be entirely green and sustainable we must also think blue thus, all blue economy sectors and businesses are required to reduce their carbon footprint. Furthermore, looking at the enormous potential of renewable energy revenue that this economic sector has to offer, technological innovation within this field will accelerate the overall sustainable transition leading to significant benefits at both environmental and economic levels. In fact, as outlined by the Commission during this last EU Green Week, wave and tidal energy, algae production and a thriving newborn marine ecosystem will support the creation of new green jobs and business within the blue economy while increasing the carbon lock-in of the planet.[19] Hence, to a certain extent thinking blue can be seen as a win-win strategy between the environment and economy insofar a balance between profit gaining and the ecosystem is restored.

The Communication released by the Commission in May clears out a very detailed agenda for the blue economy that goes as follow:

  • Achieve the objectives of climate neutrality and zero pollution through offshore renewable energy as well as intensive decarbonization of maritime transport and greening of ports.
  • Shifting to a circular economy and shrink pollution by legislating new sustainable standards for fishing, withdrawing offshore oil platforms, and cutting down the use of microplastics pollution.
  • Preserve biodiversity and invest in nature – Enhancing new action plans to reduce the environmental impacts of overfishing on marine habitats, thus invading the natural cycle to a minimum.
  • Prioritize climate adaptation and coastal durability, harnessing new technologies to overcome the immanent growing threats of flooding and erosion through adaptation activities such as green infrastructure in coastal areas. These developments will bring high economic incentives to the coastal economy and tourism as well as preserve marine biodiversity.
  • Promote sustainable food production- enhance a new strategy for sustainable production along with new stricter marketing standards for seafood, replacing meat with algae and seagrass while tightening fisheries control.
  • Improve overseeing of space at sea and creation of a new Blue Forum to enhance the multilateral exchange of information between offshore operators, stakeholders, and scientists for an environmentally friendly use of the marine biosphere.[20]

On May 26, the Council approved the conclusion on the new strategy proposed by the Commission on the sustainable blue economy, which encompasses four pillars: healthy ocean, knowledge, prosperity, and social equity. The agreed conclusions outline the direct interdependency between strong ocean governance and sustainable policymaking.[21] Playing a vital role for a successful enforcement of the European Green Deal agenda and in line with the EU’s Strategic Agenda, the Council has called the Member States to improve sea-related knowledge, awareness and fair socioeconomic conditions. In renewing these principles, the Council aims at keeping the Member States and their economy on the right track for maintaining the biodiversity’s target by 2050 and reduce marine pollution and unsustainable practices. If the EU wants to promote a resourceful, resilient, competitive green economy, the parties involved are required to be highly collaborative in the effort of making the blue economy a thriving sustainable sector.

Indeed, as mentioned above, several observations were raised over how this new approach shall be part of the upcoming Recovery Fund to ensure a green and inclusive recovery from the daunting Covid-19 pandemic. Parallelly to the intra-European green transition, the Commission, according to the international ocean governance agenda, recommenced its effort to improve the conditions of a sustainable blue economy internationally.[22] In terms of mandatory action, the new strategy follows a common but differentiated framework that focuses on strengthening coherence and synergy across all the economic sectors involved. In doing so, the new approach will facilitate their coexistence while promoting new developments in the maritime space that will benefit the environment. Most importantly, however, as the global pandemic had tremendously taught us, the executive highly encourages investment in research and innovation to foster transparency and sound monitoring.[23] In other words, if we want to overcome climate change, or at least slowing it down, science has to be the reference point to follow for policymaking in the years to come.

Financing the sustainable blue economy

According to the latest updated Blue economy report, the industries and sectors related to oceans, seas and maritime environment provide 4.5 million jobs generating over 650 billion euro in turnover. Thus, is no surprise that for this sector to achieve in the most cost-effective manner a just and successful sustainable transition, it needs to be multilaterally backed by all investment agencies of the Union.

The Commission in joint action with the European Investment Bank Group, formed by the union of the European Investment Bank and European Investment Fund (EIF), is set to increase its cooperation on a sustainable blue economy. The EU, as part of its overarching European Green Deal, will work closely with the Member States to address the financial costs to reduce pollution in European seas and support investment for the blue bioeconomy. To consistently address the myriad of challenges and gain results in the long term, the EU, through its new European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund- with its BlueInvest’ platform and the new BlueInvestFund acting as its backbone- will smooth the creation of a sustainable value chain based upon oceans, seas, and maritime activities. The latter (Blue InvestFund), despite having been just released last year, will, with the help of the European Fund for Strategic Investments, support financially the primary equity funds that have to do with the Blue Economy. As part of the Recovery Funds directed towards the green transition, the Commission has repeatedly stressed the various Member States to include investments for a sustainable blue economy to maximize resilience[24]. Furthermore, the maritime-related national operational programs will have to work under the guidelines of the blue economy if they wish to see funds being released by the EU.

            To integrate to the financial requirements needed for the blue economy to actively pursue a sustainable agenda in line with the European Green Deal and the UN’s SDGs accordingly, the European Commission is funding the Sustainable Blue Finance Initiative, an UN-led global community that focuses on making the relation between private finance and the ocean environment healthy to stay on the right track with the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles. The project aims at mobilizing capital for a sustainable ocean by offering a new platform of experts who will supply new tailor-made frameworks to the financial community. In doing so, investment, spendings and loans whose growth is directly proportionate to the private sector’s money flow, are aligned with the UN SDG 14 called ‘life below water’. The latter has the objective of enabling financial institutions to ‘build back greener’ oceans, along with its rich biodiversity, in a healthier and more prosperous way[25]. In doing so, next to the abovementioned investment funds, the European Bank for Reconstruction (EBRD) will support the shift to a new sustainable framework for the oceans and its ecosystems by financing projects of the private sectors which aim at transitioning to a well-functioning market. Its investments decisions follow six criteria, called ‘transition qualities’, that share the goal of making economies competitive, well-governed, green, inclusive, resilient and integrated.[26]

Four key objectives of the new sustainable blue economy

A new approach for the Blue economy stems from the necessity of improving four key principles: circular economy, biodiversity, climate adaptation, sustainable food.[27] To start with, circular economy answers to the new EU action plan on zero pollution providing a valuable opportunity to finally concretize action against (micro) plastic, nutrients, contaminants and water noise. To put into perspective, 27000 tonnes of plastic swim in the European seas each year, putting at an extreme risk life underwater. According to marine scientists and experts, plastic has become an unwanted ubiquitous material in the Mediterranean and the European people’s lives. Studies have recorded that 0.57 million tonnes of plastic enter Mediterranean waters every year, and unless action is taken now, the number will quadruple by 2050.[28] Concerning the latter and connecting it to the second key objective, namely biodiversity, the Commission aims at stepping up action to increase the protection of marine areas, thus increasing biodiversity and larger fish stocks.

To successfully enhance the mitigation and resilience of these practices, the executive has the target of 30% of marine protected areas by 2030. In doing so, this move has the cross-sectoral potential to promote sustainable tourism and new activities such as biotechnology with a return of 3 euros for each invested. Speaking of money and investment, climate adaption will indeed bear some costs to develop green infrastructure in coastal areas as well as sheltering coastlines from natural calamities such as flooding, which little islands have the most to fear. Acknowledging the enormous potential that oceans and seas hold in producing renewable energy through offshore wind and tidal energy, the Commission is currently working on new projects such as floating wind turbines to use in deeper waters. According to Bernhard Friess, director of maritime policy and blue economy in the European Commission (DG Mare), estimates that expanding such a project will barely take 3% of sea space for such a gigantic energy revenue.[29] Moreover, although delivering huge cost-effective changes into the coastal economy, the spotlight here is reserved for the cost of inaction. In fact, according to a recent analysis, the EU would face 350 billion euros losses per year if action is not taken now.[30] Again, shifting to a sustainable blue economy will not only bring great benefits to the ecosystem, but it will indeed bring economic advantages to small and medium enterprises that otherwise would cease to exist.

Last but not least, this new approach is committed to bringing the debated topic of sustainable food to a new chapter. For so long, many NGOs and marine experts argue against the very idea of seafood as sustainable. Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd claims that “there is no such a thing as sustainable seafood in a dying ocean.” As previously mentioned, this frightening message may sound like a drill, but the not-too-complex reality is far different. People are quite susceptible and accustomed to the idea that oceans are endless and mighty power that human-made harm will not even be able to scratch its ‘surface’.[31] Nevertheless, scientists have pinpointed that the world’s fisheries, following the extensive appetite for seafood, will downfall by 2048. Although this deadline is seemingly perceived as out of our reach, from the frightening rate of species extinction, widespread coral bleaching, and epidemic marine dead areas, we can already witness some evidence that oceans are dying at the hand of humans.

            Unlike Captain Watson who cynically shares his distrust that things will get any better, we hope that the Commission will follow the inspirational vision of the devoted captain in shaping its blue economy as close as possible to the ecological needs of the planet. In making this transition possible but first sustainable, people too have to step up and embrace an ecological change into their lifestyle if we want to stay ‘united in (bio)diversity).


[1] Noaa, <<What is eutrophication?>> National Ocean Service website, 10 May 2017 https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/eutrophication.html

[2] WWF, <<All Hands On Decks; setting course towards a sustainable blue economy>>, 2017, p.5

[3] Antonia Leroy, <<Promoting a sustainable blue economy>>, WWF, https://www.wwf.eu/what_we_do/oceans/promoting_a_sustainable_blue_economy/

[4] Ibid.

[5] European Commission, << The EU Blue Economy Report 2020>> https://blueindicators.ec.europa.eu/sites/default/files/2020_06_BlueEconomy-2020-LD_FINAL-corrected-web-acrobat-pro.pdf

[6] Ibid.

[7] European Communicating from Commission, <<Communicating from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament>> Directive 2008/56/EC of the European Parliament and the Council, 17 June 2008 (OJEU L 164, 25.6.2008)

[8] FAO,  <<The Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries. FAO Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries>> No 4, Suppl. 2. 2002, Rome, FAO. 112 pp.

[9] European Commission, <<Blue Growth: opportunities for marine and maritime sustainable growth>> Brussels, 13.9.2012 COM (2012) 494 Final.

[10] Blue Growth Study ‘Scenarios and drivers for sustainable growth from the oceans, seas and coasts’, ECORYS, 2012. https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/maritimeforum/content/2946

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] European Commission, <<European Green Deal: Developing a sustainable blue economy in the European Union>>, 17 May 2021; https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_2341  [COM (2021) 240]

[14] European Commission, <<Sustainable blue economy>>; https://ec.europa.eu/oceans-and-fisheries/ocean/blue-economy/sustainable-blue-economy_en

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] European Commission, <<European Green Deal: Developing a sustainable blue economy in the European Union>>, 17 May 2021; https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_2341

[18] Ibid.

[19] European Commission, <<Clean seas with a sustainable blue economy- challenges and opportunities>> 2021; https://www.eugreenweek.eu/virtual-conference/clean-seas-sustainable-blue-economy-challenges-and-opportunities

[20] Ibid.

[21] European Council, Council of the European Union, <<Council Conclusions on a sustainable blue economy>>. 26 May 2021; https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/05/26/council-conclusions-on-a-sustainable-blue-economy/

[22] Ibid.

[23] European Commission, <<Sustainable blue economy>>; https://ec.europa.eu/oceans-and-fisheries/ocean/blue-economy/sustainable-blue-economy_en

[24] European Commission, <<European Green Deal: Developing a sustainable blue economy in the European Union>>, 17 May 2021; https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_2341

[25] UN Environment Programme, <<Sustainable Blue Finance>>, UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative. https://www.unepfi.org/blue-finance/

[26] Ibid.

[27] European Commission, <<Putting the Blue into the Green, Sustainable Blue Economy>>, 17 May 2021

[28] https://wwfeu.awsassets.panda.org/downloads/a4_plastics_reg_low.pdf

[29] Kiara Taylor, <<Green transition impossible without ‘blue economy’, EU says>>, 6 May 2021, https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy/news/green-transition-impossible-without-blue-economy-eu-says/

[31] Kate Good, <<Can Seafood be Sustainable? Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd Has the Answer… and a Warning>>, 2017, onegreenplanet.org

Gabriele Bertoni

I recently graduated in European Studies at Maastricht University with a Minor in Philosophy and Sociology. During these three years I took part in several environmental student-based movements as well as cultural projects. At EU Logos Athena, by being the Head of Environmental Portfolio, I can finally put into practice all the skills gained throughout these past three years and actively contribute to make this world more sustainable.

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