The World Bank defines the blue economy as “the sustainable use of maritime resources for economic growth, jobs, and improved livelihoods while preserving the marine ecosystem’s health.” The aim is to strike a balance between conservation and resource extraction when developing marine-based economies. The blue economy can offer huge potential in the area of climate change mitigation and resilience, given the fact that marine habitats, such as mangroves, tidal marshes, and seagrass meadows, provide significant protection from erratic climate events, including cyclones and floods.
These key coastal systems sequester and store more carbon per unit area than terrestrial forests. In the case of mangroves and coastal wetlands, they can store three to five times more carbon per equivalent area than tropical forests, making them one of the world’s most important natural “carbon sinks.” Despite representing less than 5% of the global land area and less than 2% of the ocean, they sequester carbon at a rate 10 times greater than terrestrial forests, and thereby represent an important nature-based solution for mitigating the effects of climate change. In addition, marine ecosystems provide nursery and breeding grounds for commercial fish, habitat for endangered species such as turtles, staging points for migratory birds, and filter water flowing into seas and oceans. Thus, they also play a key role in ensuring food security and sustaining coastal communities, as well as diversifying livelihoods, including fishing and tourism.
The Middle East and North Africa region boasts vast coastal zones on the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Gulf, and the Atlantic Ocean. These extended coastal environments are rich in marine ecosystems and serve as vital routes for international trade, alongside other economic activities. There are four crucial areas where MENA countries would benefit from developing the blue economy that would aid in reversing natural resource degradation, sustaining inclusive economic development, and building resilience to climate change. These areas include developing renewable energy sources, investing in sustainable aquaculture, decarbonizing maritime transportation, and developing resilient and carbon-neutral tourism.
Developing renewable maritime energy sources
There is enormous untapped potential for blue renewable energy sources in MENA, including well-established sources like offshore wind, as well as nascent technologies such as wave, tidal, current, ocean thermal, and biomass production from algae. All of these renewable sources could contribute to meeting rising energy and electricity demand at a lower cost, achieving energy independence, and helping the region to meet its carbon reduction commitments in a way that aligns with the objectives of the Paris Agreement.
For example, wind energy potential is especially high in North African countries, and it is estimated that wind power potential in this region is 34 times greater than that of northern European countries. Morocco, for example, is estimated to have an offshore wind potential of 200 GW, benefiting from average wind speeds of 7.5-9.5 meters per second (m/s) in the south and 9.5-11.0 m/s in the north. Algeria also has tremendous technical wind energy potential estimated at 7,700 GW. To put this in perspective, the total wind capacity in Europe at the end of 2020 was only 216 GW.
Other potential locations for offshore wind farms (where annual wind speeds are greater than 5m/s at 80 meters above sea level) include coasts along the Gulf of Suez and Aqaba in Egypt, Jordan, north-west Saudi Arabia, the south-east coast of Oman, northern Libya, and southern Tunisia. Egypt is something of a regional leader when it comes to building wind farms, with the largest wind farm in the country being a 545-MW facility in Zafarana. In addition, Cairo has plans to expand its wind energy capacity through two memoranda of understanding, one with the Saudi renewable energy developer ACWA to build a 10-GW wind farm and another with the UAE’s Masdar to build a second 10-GW onshore wind farm. These would be the second-largest wind farms in the world behind the Gansu project in China, which has a projected capacity of 20 GW. It is expected that the Masdar onshore wind farm will generate about 48,000 GWh of clean energy a year, offsetting some 23.8 million tons of CO2 emissions — about 9% of the country’s total carbon emissions. Egypt’s plans to add 25 GW of wind power capacity represents a seven-fold increase in its total renewable-energy capacity, which was 3.4 GW at the end of 2021.
Investing in sustainable fisheries and aquaculture
Fisheries are an important source of coastal livelihoods in the MENA region. For example, in the southern Mediterranean countries, 1 in every 1,000 coastal residents work in fishing (in some countries, this number can reach as high as 1 in every 100 coastal residents). In the region, 59% of the total employment on board fishing vessels comes from small-scale fisheries (SSF). SSFs generate 27% of total fishing revenue and bring in 15% of the total catch. However, the average remuneration of an individual small-scale fisher ($4,021) is less than half the average among industrial fleets ($8,366). Despite the continuing importance of fisheries in the MENA region, the sector workforce is aging. In 2020, 52% of all crew were over the age of 40 (compared to 49% in 2018) and only 10% were under 25 (compared to 17% in 2018). Fisheries production in the region has been stalled since the mid-1990s, with a decrease in 2020 linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Similarly, the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden represent a major source of fishing and livelihood for coastal communities in the region. For example, the fishing fleet operating in the Red Sea has increased substantially from 5,055 fishing vessels in 1996 to reach 15,000 in 2020 operated by over 30,000 workers. However, this significant increase in the fishing fleet resulted in the degradation of essential coastal habitats, which influenced the overall fish production. The current domestic demand for fish products in Saudi Arabia is around 282,000 tons annually, while current production is only half of that. Other significant stressors include the threats of hydrocarbon spills; pollution from urban, industrial, and tourism activities; and the impacts of climate change, all of which lead to mounting pressures on the coastal and marine environments of the Red Sea.
To ensure the long-term sustainability of fisheries in the MENA region as an integrated component of a blue climate-resilient economy, MENA governments and industries should incorporate additional governance measures, including identifying priority species for research and management; engaging small-scale fishers in local monitoring, control, and surveillance activities and decision-making; improving the representation of women in leadership positions; enhancing access to and coverage by social protection programs; and supporting capacity building for small-scale fishers.
Decarbonizing maritime transportation
Maritime trade plays a key role in MENA. According to the global Container Port Performance Index (CPPI),four of the five best-performing ports in the world are located in the region. These ports include King Abdullah Port in Saudi Arabia, Port Salalah in Oman, Hamad Port in Qatar, Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi, and the largest in the Mediterranean, the Moroccan port of Tanger-Med.
Between 80% and 90% of international trade is transported through maritime means, including container carriers and oil and chemical tankers. Together, these types of vessels represent 20% of the global fleet, but they contribute 85% of the net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the shipping sector. Therefore, adapting ports and maritime shipping to the impacts of climate change is a growing concern for policymakers and industry alike, particularly in light of the recent regulation by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to reduce CO2 emissions from ships by 50% by 2050. Other key developments that aim to reduce maritime carbon emissions and the environmental impacts of shipping include the 2021 Clydebank Declaration, which aims to establish six zero-emission green corridors of entirely decarbonized maritime routes between two or more ports, and the Dhaka-Glasgow Declaration, which included a call for the IMO to implement a mandatory GHG levy on international shipping as a way to accelerate efforts on climate change mitigation.
The MENA region is particularly impacted by these regulations, and regional governments and private companies need to develop sustainable approaches to decarbonize maritime shipping. These approaches should include the development of fuel options that are less carbon-intensive and new marine propulsion technologies. The use of hydrogen cells to power ships and ports is expected to play a key role in decarbonizing maritime shipping in the region given the fact that many MENA countries are laying the groundwork for green hydrogen hubs. For example, Morocco is considered one of the top five countries globally in terms of its potential to produce competitive green hydrogen, alongside the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Australia, and Chile. Saudi Arabia announced in 2020 that it is investing $5 billion in green hydrogen and green ammonia plants in NEOM city, which could encourage the rapid growth of hydrogen innovation and adoption in maritime shipping and industries.
Developing resilient, carbon-neutral marine and coastal tourism
It is estimated that about 80% of all tourism is concentrated in coastal areas, and it is expected that tourism will represent up to 26% of all ocean-related economic activities in 2030. Additionally, tourism constitutes the largest economic sector for many coastal states as it generates nearly 79% of total blue economy job opportunities. The economic impacts of marine tourism revenues reach far beyond the shoreline. For instance, direct spending on coral reef activities (i.e. snorkeling and diving) has been estimated at $19 billion per year; however, an additional $16 billion per year is related to “reef-adjacent” tourism, including “the role of reefs in providing clear calm waters and beach sand, seafood, and even their widespread use in advertising.”
Within the MENA region, southern Mediterranean countries with their vast and rich marine resources are considered a hub for marine tourism, especially Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt, all of which receive large numbers of international tourists, including many from the EU. However, coastal and marine tourism is highly dependent on the quality of marine ecosystems and is therefore vulnerable to threats such as climate change and biodiversity loss.
Given this reality, decarbonizing marine tourism in the region is critical to developing resilient climate-friendly marine tourism. To achieve this goal, sub-sectors that contribute to carbon emissions (for example, aviation and maritime transport contribute 2.5% and 2.2% to global CO2 emissions, respectively) should establish emissions reduction goals with concrete actions to reduce emissions in specific timeframes. To decarbonize marine tourism without jeopardizing the sector’s economic interests, the economic model of the tourism industry will need to be transformed. For example, airlines should rely on environmentally friendly aviation fuels, and hotels should use on-site solar panels to reduce their carbon footprint. In addition, sound ecosystem management practices that harness the ability of marine habitats to protect against hazards represent the basis for nature-based solutions. For example, nature-based approaches that combine engineering (i.e. building dams and seawalls) with rehabilitating coral reef systems are used to reduce vulnerability to flooding and erosion while simultaneously maintaining the beauty of the coastline and boosting the economy.
The notion of the blue economy presents new opportunities for MENA, as the vast majority of countries in the region are developing economies. The marine environment and its ecosystems play a critical role in the regional economy, providing important goods and services and supporting numerous essential economic activities, such as capture fisheries, maritime transport and ports, coastal tourism, and offshore energy sources. All the aforementioned opportunities from marine resources for developing a climate-resilient blue economy are not possible without an in-depth analysis of the benefits for MENA countries’ seas and coasts, together with careful consideration of the prevailing environmental, economic, and social contexts in those countries. In addition, enabling regional collaboration through new forms of governance structures, collaborative policy frameworks, and operational dialogue with relevant stakeholders is a prerequisite for the success of the regional blue economy in addressing the transboundary crisis of climate change, food insecurity, and loss of marine biodiversity.
Zeina Moneer holds a PhD in environmental politics from Freiburg University in Germany and her research interests include environmental movements, environmental justice, environmental communication, international polices of climate change negotiations and adaption, and sustainability transition with a particular focus on the MENA region.
Photo by Ferdi Uzun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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