Dr Adam Moolna, Lecturer in Environment and Sustainability at Keele University, UK
Global society is attempting to reconcile economic development with social progress, environmental sustainability, biodiversity conservation, and climate change action. Within that context, ocean and coastal economic development approaches commonly called “Blue Economy” are typically presented as reconciled with sustainability. Yet, how the Blue Economy is conceptualised warrants critical scrutiny, notably in better understanding its interconnections with sustainable development, conservation, and climate action. This article highlights some of the contradictions between Blue Economy approaches in Mauritius and sustainable development objectives and hence recommends some ways forward for a genuinely sustainable Blue Economy in Mauritius and the Western Indian Ocean.
Blue Economy means different things to different people
“Blue Economy” refers to a spectrum of ocean and coastal economic development approaches that, superficially at least, align with a prosperous, environmentally sustainable, and socially equitable future. Such a future is set out by Agenda 2030 (United Nations, 2015) and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Alongside is the Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) , through which SDG 13 Climate Action is addressed[i]. Finally, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) addresses biodiversity conservation with an updated post-2020 global biodiversity framework due to be finalised in 2022.
With ocean and coastal resources core to their development, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) made “Blue Economy” a key term at the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). This advocacy brought the preparatory document “Green Economy in a Blue World” (UNEP, 2012) alongside “Towards a Green Economy” (UNEP, 2011) – and led to the post-conference Blue Economy Concept Paper (United Nations, 2013). In line with these developments, Blue Economy approaches have been adopted around the world. For example, the European Union adopted a Blue Growth Strategy in 2012 and recently set out a vision for a “sustainable blue economy” (European Commission, 2021). Similarly, Mauritius has established a Ministry of Blue Economy, Marine Resources, Fisheries and Shipping, and adopted various World Bank recommendations in that area.
Blue Economy is largely presented in political rhetoric as essentially synonymous with sustainable development. Blue Economy, however, means different things to different actors and can be contradictory to key elements of sustainability. Treating it without critical analysis as “the solution” for a sustainable future is therefore problematic. Martínez-Vázquez et al. (2021) analyse the use of differing definitions of Blue Economy, Marine Economy, Blue Growth, and Ocean Economy. Voyer et al. (2018) draw out ambiguities and conflicts in different interpretations – identifying four categories treating the ocean as natural capital, livelihoods, good business, or a driver of innovation – and note, for example, consensus around economically valuing nature but conflict over what activities are legitimate components of the Blue Economy.
Connecting Blue Economy, sustainable development, conservation, and climate action
Blue Economy, as currently implemented and understood in general, has aspects contradictory to Agenda 2030, the UNFCCC, and the CBD. The assumed exploitation of hydrocarbons, such as the discussion on hydrocarbon prospects for Mauritius by the UN Economic Commission for Africa in 2014, is an example of a key contradiction. Whilst generally included with renewables under the euphemism of “blue energy” because ocean-based, pursuing fossil fuels directly conflicts with SDG 13 Climate Action and the spirit of the Paris Agreement. Hydrocarbons illustrate the primacy of “economy” and the disconnect between national interests and global cooperation. The concentrated economic gains a nation can make from hydrocarbon exploitation might from a national perspective greatly outweigh the costs of less effective climate action, as the burden of climate impacts is diffused around the world. Without bridging the economic disconnect between responsibility for fossil fuel exploitation and climate adaptation costs nations cannot justify foregoing the economic gains.
Discussion of Blue Economy links to Agenda 2030 has generally been dominated by SDG 14 Life Under Water (“Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”). The literature has linked Blue Economy to additional SDGs, but substantively only to SDG 17 Partnerships for the Goals, SDG 16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, and SDG 15 Life on Land. Biodiversity conservation, whilst often treated as synonymous with sustainable development by the public and policymakers, is distinct and risks being ineffectively delivered with a societal focus on the predominantly socioeconomic SDGs. Zeng et al. (2020) analyse “environment-related” indicators across the SDGs and argue they are actually socioeconomic, having little relationship to biodiversity conservation.
Blue Economy approaches typically fit aspects of biodiversity conservation around economic use and tend to focus on increasing Protected Area coverage in explicit link to Aichi Target 11 of the CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. Recognition of carbon capture by seagrass, mangroves and other “Blue Carbon” sinks is emerging as a useful argument for their protection and enhancement. Seychelles, for example, has included Blue Carbon in its updated Nationally Determined Contribution towards the Paris Agreement. Whilst positive in recognising one dimension of value, this, however, risks distorting biodiversity conservation objectives and being used to offset and excuse hydrocarbon use (for a critique of treating carbon as a commodity see Moolna, 2012).
Different understandings of “Blue Economy”, while easing consensus despite conflicting motivations, risk contradictory actions and failing to make a genuine transition to a sustainable ocean-focused future. Challenges of misunderstanding and resulting contradictory aims and activities also exist across sustainable development and biodiversity conservation. This “dialogue of the deaf”, due to lack of shared meaning in a common vocabulary, is discussed by Sauvé et al. (2016), who set out to clarify how differently understood concepts across environmental science, sustainable development and circular economy relate. Jefferey (2019) explores (mis)conceptions of sustainability in Mauritius, including environmentalist critiques of the Maurice Ile Durable (“Sustainable Mauritius”) programme and how a narrow government focus appears to have shaped an understanding in urban populations that sustainability is principally about energy efficiency and economy. The need to reconcile Blue Economy approaches with Agenda 2030, the UNFCCC and the CBD is recognised in Seychelles’ Blue Economy Strategic Policy but shared understanding and effectively integrating approaches remains a challenge.
Ambiguous concepts, each with echo chambers of misunderstanding, makes progress cognitively, and politically, complex and challenging. Different actors have conflicting values and interests. Problems and solutions are differently perceived by those parties and the views of others are poorly understood. This makes connecting Blue Economy, sustainable development, conservation, and climate action a very wicked problem from a public policy perspective[ii].
Policy versus meaningful impact
Mauritius’ Ministry of Blue Economy, Marine Resources, Fisheries and Shipping states a vision to “double our blue GDP to 20 percent in the medium term, while realising social economic development and dynamic balance of resources and environment”. Beyond rhetoric, what mechanisms for delivery and tangible work packages are set out and how do they align Agenda 2030, UNFCCC and CBD action?
Mapping and thematic analysis of policy and related documents is an important step for a transparent evaluation. An initial examination is not promising. The Government of Mauritius programme 2020-24 proposes an Offshore Petroleum Bill which conflicts with climate action and a Seabed Mineral Bill which has questionable environmental prospects. The 2020-25 Industrial Policy and Strategic Plan includes the term “blue economy” just once while referencing fish exports.
Yet even if such a robust mapping of policies, laws and plans is done we must recognise gaps between what these state, what happens in practice, and what is reported. “Paper parks”, for example, refers to designated protected areas that are ineffective in practice. We need to consider implementation, rather than just policies, programmes and plans that may exist only on paper. The Wakashio oil spill was an illustration of the potential discrepancy. Mauritius was thought to be well prepared in oil spill contingency planning but the authorities failed to manage the wreck to prevent the oil spill and then to deal effectively with the spill when it happened. The Wakashio incident, context, and key lessons for improving future real preparedness are discussed by Raghoo (2021).
How can we assess evidence of delivery? We can look at reports of government and non-governmental organisations, individual projects, and media reporting. For example, an overview of Marine Protected Areas, marine parks and fishing reserves in Mauritius is included in a recent regional outlook report. There are broader analyses such as the Africa SDG Index and Dashboards Report. Yet, these reports generally cannot escape the complex and various pressures of the institutional and political context and tend to steer clear of the more controversial issues. Independent analysis, accessing the actual experiences of Mauritians and allowing dissenting voices, is therefore crucial for a reliable picture (such as by Rambaree, 2020, on corporate social responsibility in coastal communities). We can, for example, look beyond rhetoric around promoting social equity and see evident marginalisation of Mauritians amidst coastal developments and the emergence of movements such as Aret Kokin Nu Laplaz (“stop stealing our beaches”).
A sustainable future through the Blue Economy?
How might Mauritius move forward translating rhetoric into reality? There are various well-argued Blue Economy recommendations in the literature, typically identifying improved governance, social equity, environmental considerations, and monitoring of implementation (see, for example, Bennett et al., 2019).
Drawing on a previous discussion paper, Mauritius should collaborate with other Western Indian Ocean states to: (1) embed Blue Economy within a regional framework of broader sustainability; (2) move from non-binding policies to legislation for long-term commitment; (3) coordinate sustainability actions considering externalities and trade-offs; (4) engage communities with local activities and benefits to mainstream sustainability; (5) reshape engagement with universities and independent perspectives; and (6) push for a global financial mechanism so states can afford to forego hydrocarbon exploitation.
Ocean and coastal development is key to a prosperous Mauritius. A Blue Economy approach could achieve prosperity in an equitable and environmentally beneficial way if it is aligned with sustainability, climate action and conservation. Mauritius can only do this, however, by turning rhetoric and projects into a meaningful society-wide transition.
Main Photo by Adam Moolna (waterfront development at Mahébourg, Mauritius)
Charles Telfair Centre is an independent nonpartisan not for profit organisation and does not take specific positions. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in our publications are solely those of the author(s).