Barcelona

Boosting the blue economy: how our cities can make a splash!

Who hasn’t ever dreamt of a holiday on a remote Pacific island? Or a getaway to a vibrant coastal city? And, once there, planned to eat fish, visit the beaches, marvel at historic harbours, enjoy the spectacular mangroves or explore the mysterious seabed?

Yet behind the idyllic postcard picture is an entire economic system – the so-called “blue economy”, which makes up 5% of the world’s GDP and affects the livelihoods of 350 million people. In some Asian countries, like Indonesia, the blue economy accounts for up to 20% of GDP. Ultimately, if the global blue economy were a country, it would be the seventh largest in the world, and the ocean, as an economic entity, would be in the G7!

The blue economy is a major driver of urban and regional development. In coastal cities, the blue economy provides jobs for millions of people, including in the nautical sector, bio-marine research or blue technologies. In Spain, the blue economy generates annual turnover of EUR 3.8 million in Barcelona alone, and in the Southern region of Andalusia, it accounts for around 10.5% of GDP.

But the blue economy is not only about money. It includes non-market benefits, such as carbon storage, coastal protection, cultural values and biodiversity. Globally, ecosystem services, such as wind power production and coastal protection, provide benefits of USD 140 trillion per year, amounting to more than one and a half times the size of global GDP. In Europe, almost EUR 500 billion worth of ecosystem services are generated within a 10 km coastal zone.

Under threat

Cities and regions have an important role to play both in realising the potential of the blue economy and in preserving marine and freshwater ecosystems, conserving the ocean, boosting the use of renewable energy preventing waste and fighting against pollution.  In 2019, more than 6 mega tonnes of plastic waste leaked into rivers, lakes and the ocean. That’s roughly the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Plastic pollution would stunt fish growth, cutting off millions of people from a vital source of food.

At the same time, cities must also adapt to growing risks. By 2050, more than 500 coastal cities will face a sea level rise of at least 0.5 metre, putting over 800 million people at risk. Rising seas would reclaim beaches and ports; droughts would make rivers too shallow for fluvial transport or clean energy generation.

Source: OECD (2016), OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook 2016, OECD Publishing, Paris.

So, what do we need to do?

First, think global and act local. A growing number of international declarations and conventions have strengthened global commitments to marine and freshwater conservation, the prevention of water-related risks and the blue economy. However, none of them recognises the importance of a localised approach to the blue economy. Doing so is long overdue. Many of the most powerful levers – land use, spatial planning, waste and water management – are in the hands of sub-national governments. Cities and regions can also invest in infrastructure and nature-based solutions to mitigate flood risk and improve the resilience of local economies. They are also guardians of local culture and traditions linked to water-related economic activities, which can help ensure that solutions win the approval – and active support – of local communities.

Second, connect the dots. Coastal or inland cities cannot be disconnected from the basins they sit in. With growing urban populations and increasing pressure on the availability and quality of water resources, urban areas and their basins need to join forces and co-ordinate action to optimise costs, develop shared information systems and identify economic and regulatory tools for nature-based solutions.

Third, get governance right. For a resilient, inclusive, sustainable and circular blue economy to thrive in cities and regions, technical solutions are not enough. Cities need to find new funding mechanisms to support marine and freshwater protection; develop partnerships with private actors, community organisations, cooperatives, think tanks and research institutes and stimulate blue entrepreneurship; create synergies across policies such as spatial planning, waste, energy, transport and water; and foster dialogue between scientists and policy makers.

It’s time for cities to make a splash in the sustainable blue economy!


The OECD project Cities for a Blue Economy, in collaboration with the International Network of River Basin Organisations (INBO) aims to unleash the potential of the blue economy in cities and regions, connecting them to their basin(s) and setting the right enabling conditions. Join the discussion on Localising Action for the Ocean: Local and Regional Governments (25 June, 10 AM – 5:30 PM CEST) at the 2022 United Nations Ocean Conference.

To support government efforts to transition to a more sustainable ocean economy, the OECD is mobilising expertise across multiple policy fronts, covering environmental, economic, financial and social dimensions. Working with both developed and developing countries, the OECD aims to ensure that all societies can harness the benefits of the ocean on a sustainable and inclusive basis. Find more OECD work for a sustainable ocean.

Policy Analyst at | Website | + posts

Oriana Romano is the Head of Unit, Water Governance and Circular Economy, Urban Policies, and Sustainable Development Division of the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities. In 2018, she initiated a Programme on the Circular Economy in Cities and Regions, which supports governments in developing and implementing circular economy strategies. She heads the OECD Water Governance programme, which she joined in 2013. Before the OECD, she was university lecturer in Environmental Economics at the “Centre for International Business and Sustainability”(CIBS), London Metropolitan University (London, United Kingdom) and the Department of Social Science of the University “L’Orientale”(Naples, Italy). She currently teaches “The Transition to the Carbon Neutral and Circular Economy in Cities ”at Sciences Po, Paris, France. She holds a Ph.D in “Institution, Economics and Law of Public Services”.

Junior Policy Analyst at | Website | + posts

Juliette Lassman is a Junior Policy Analyst in the Water Governance and Circular Economy Unit in the Cities Division at the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE). She has contributed to national and subnational policy dialogues on water governance, the circular economy and nature-based solutions, as well as work on the blue economy in cities. Previously, she worked on decarbonising transport at the OECD’s International Transport Forum. Juliette holds a Masters in Management specialising in economics and international business from IESEG Lille, France.

Director general at OiEau | + posts

Eric Tardieu is the Permanent Technical Secretary of the International Network of Basin Organizations (INBO), and director general of the International Office for Water (OiEau) since 2017.

He’s an Environmental Engineering, graduated from Ecole Polytechnique, prestigious post-graduate multidisciplinary engineering French school, with a PhD in membrane filtration applied to urban wastewater treatment. He served for French Ministries of Agriculture and Environment as a water policy officer, applying and managing national and European regulations. He then held successive responsible positions in the public sector for national (Ministry of Industry), regional (Normandy region) and local authorities (Toulouse), implementing policy regulations, designing multistakeholders strategies and plans of measures. He has been engaged not only in the field of water resources management and environmental protection, but also public policies for innovation, research and attractivity, public private partnerships or European and international cooperations.