Revisiting Financing Blue Economy

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Blue Economy has suffered a definitional crisis ever since it started doing the rounds almost around the turn of the century. So much has it been plagued by this crisis, that even a working definition is acceptable only contextually, and is liable to paradigmatic shifts both littorally and political-economically. 

The United Nations defines Blue Economy as: 

A range of economic sectors and related policies that together determine whether the use of oceanic resources is sustainable. The “Blue Economy” concept seeks to promote economic growth, social inclusion, and the preservation or improvement of livelihoods while at the same time ensuring environmental sustainability of the oceans and coastal areas. 

This definition is subscribed to by even the World Bank, and is commonly accepted as a standardized one since 2017. However, in 2014, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) had called Blue Economy as

The improvement of human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities…the concept of an oceans economy also embodies economic and trade activities that integrate the conservation and sustainable use and management of biodiversity including marine ecosystems, and genetic resources.

Preceding this by three years, the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (Pacific SIDS) referred to Blue Economy as the 

Sustainable management of ocean resources to support livelihoods, more equitable benefit-sharing, and ecosystem resilience in the face of climate change, destructive fishing practices, and pressures from sources external to the fisheries sector. 

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As is noteworthy, these definitions across almost a decade have congruences and cohesion towards promoting economic growth, social inclusion and the preservation or improvement of livelihoods while ensuring environmental sustainability of oceanic and coastal areas, though are markedly mitigated in domains, albeit, only definitionally, for the concept since 2011 till it has been standardized in 2017 doesn’t really knock out any of the diverse components, but rather adds on. Marine biotechnology and bioprospecting, seabed mining and extraction, aquaculture, and offshore renewable energy supplement the established traditional oceanic industries like fisheries, tourism, and maritime transportation into a giant financial and economic appropriation of resources the concept endorses and encompasses. But, a term that threads through the above definitions is sustainability, which unfortunately happens to be another definitional dead-end. But, mapping the contours of sustainability in a theoretical fashion would at least contextualize the working definition of Blue Economy, to which initiatives of financial investments, legal frameworks, ecological deflections, economic zones and trading lines, fisheries, biotechnology and bioprospecting could be approvingly applied to. Though, as a caveat, such applications would be far from being exhaustive, they, at least potentially cohere onto underlying economic directions, and opening up a spectra of critiques. 

If one were to follow global multinational institutions like the UN and the World Bank, prefixing sustainable to Blue Economy brings into perspective coastal economy that balances itself with long-term capacity of assets, goods and services and marine ecosystems towards a global driver of economic, social and environmental prosperity accruing direct and indirect benefits to communities, both regionally and globally. Assuming this to be true, what guarantees financial investments as healthy, and thus proving no risks to oceanic health and rolling back such growth-led development into peril? This is the question that draws paramount importance, and is a hotbed for constructive critique of the whole venture. The question of finance, or financial viability for Blue Economy, or the viability thereof. What is seemingly the underlying principle of Blue Economy is the financialization of natural resources, which is nothing short of replacing environmental regulations with market-driven regulations. This commodification of the ocean is then packaged and traded on the markets often amounting to transferring the stewardship of commons for financial interests. Marine ecology as a natural resource isn’t immune to commodification, and an array of financial agents are making it their indispensable destination, thrashing out new alliances converging around specific ideas about how maritime and coastal resources should be organized, and to whose benefit, under which terms and to what end? A systemic increase in financial speculation on commodities mainly driven by deregulation of derivative markets, increasing involvement of investment banks, hedge funds and other institutional investors in commodity speculation and the emergence of new instruments such as index funds and exchange-traded funds. Financial deregulation has successfully transformed commodities into financial assets, and has matured its penetration into commodity markets and their functioning. This maturity can be gauged from the fact that speculative capital is structurally intertwined with productive capital, which in the case of Blue Economy are commodities and natural resources, most generically. 

But despite these fissures existing, the international organizations are relentlessly following up on attracting finances, and in a manner that could at best be said to follow principles of transparency, accountability, compliance and right to disclosure. The European Commission (EC) is partnering with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in bringing together public and private financing institutions to develop a set of Principles of Sustainable Investment within a Blue Economy Development Framework. But, the question remains: how stringently are these institutions tied to adhering to these Principles? 

Investors and policymakers are increasingly turning to the ocean for new opportunities and resources. According to OECD projections, by 2030 the “blue economy” could outperform the growth of the global economy as a whole, both in terms of value added and employment. But to get there, there will need to be a framework for ocean-related investment that is supported by policy incentives along the most sustainable pathways. Now, this might sound a bit rhetorical, and thus calls for unraveling. the international community has time and again reaffirmed its strong commitment to conserve and sustainably use the ocean and its resources, for which the formations like G7 and G20 acknowledge scaling up finance and ensuring sustainability of such investments as fundamental to meeting their needs. Investment capital, both public and private is therefore fundamental to unlocking Blue Economy. Even if there is a growing recognition that following “business s usual” trajectory neglects impacts on marine ecosystems entailing risks, these global bodies are of the view that investment decisions that incorporate sustainability elements ensure environmentally, economically and socially sustainable outcomes securing long-term health and integrity of the oceans furthering shared social, ecological and economic functions that are dependent on it. That financial institutions and markets can play this pivotal role only complicates the rhetorics further. Even if financial markets and institutions expressly intend to implement Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular Goal 14 which deals with conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, such intentions to be compliant with IFC performance Standards and EIB Environmental and Social Principles and Standards. 

So far, what is being seen is small ticket size deals, but there is a potential that it will shift on its axis. With mainstream banking getting engaged, capital flows will follow the projects, and thus the real challenge lies in building the pipeline. But, here is a catch: there might be private capital in plentiful seeking impact solutions and a financing needs by projects on the ground, but private capital is seeking private returns, and the majority of ocean-related projects are not private but public goods. For public finance, there is an opportunity to allocate more proceeds to sustainable ocean initiatives through a bond route, such as sovereign and municipal bonds in order to finance coastal resilience projects. but such a route could also encounter a dead-end, in that many a countries that are ripe for coastal infrastructure are emerging economies and would thus incur a high cost of funding. A de-risking is possible, if institutions like the World Bank, or the Overseas Private Investment Corporation undertake credit enhancements, a high probability considering these institutions have been engineering Blue Economy on a priority basis. Global banks are contenders for financing the Blue Economy because of their geographic scope, but then are also likely to be exposed to a new playing field. The largest economies by Exclusive Economic Zones, which are sea zones determined by the UN don’t always stand out as world’s largest economies, a fact that is liable to drawing in domestic banks to collaborate based on incentives offered  to be part of the solution. A significant challenge for private sector will be to find enough cash-flow generating projects to bundle them in a liquid, at-scale investment vehicle. One way of resolving this challenge is through creating a specialized financial institution, like an Ocean Sustainability Bank, which can be modeled on lines of European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The plus envisaged by such a creation is arriving at scales rather quickly. An example of this is by offering a larger institutional-sized approach by considering a coastal area as a single investment zone, thus bringing in integrated infrastructure-based financing approach. With such an approach, insurance companies would get attracted by looking at innovative financing for coastal resiliency, which is a part and parcel of climate change concerns, food security, health, poverty reduction and livelihoods. Projects having high social impact but low/no Internal Rate of Return (IRR) may be provided funding, in convergence with Governmental schemes. IRR is a metric used in capital budgeting to estimate the profitability of potential investments. It is a discount rate that makes the net present value (NPV) of all cash flows from a particular project equal to zero. NPV is the difference between the present value of cash inflows and present value of cash outflows over a period of time. IRR is sometimes referred to as “economic rate of return” or “discounted cash flow rate of return.” The use of “internal” refers to the omission of external factors, such as the cost of capital or inflation, from the calculation. The biggest concern, however appears in the form of immaturity of financial markets in emerging economies, which are purported to be major beneficiaries of Blue Economy. 

The question then is, how far viable or sustainable are these financial interventions? Financialization produces effects which can create long-term trends (such as those on functional income distribution) but can also change across different periods of economic growth, slowdown and recession. Interpreting the implications of financialization for sustainability, therefore, requires a methodological diverse and empirical dual-track approach which combines different methods of investigations. Even times of prosperity, despite their fragile and vulnerable nature, can endure for several years before collapsing due to high levels of indebtedness, which in turn amplify the real effects of a financial crisis and hinder the economic growth. Things begin to get a bit more complicated when financialization interferes with environment and natural resources, for then the losses are not just merely on a financial platform alone. Financialization has played a significant role in the recent price shocks in food and energy markets, while the wave of speculative investment in natural resources has and is likely to produce perverse environmental and social impact. Moreover, the so-called financialization of environmental conservation tends to enhance the financial value of environmental resources but it is selective: not all stakeholders have the same opportunities and not all uses and values of natural resources and services are accounted for. 

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