The ocean produces 2.5 trillion annual economic value

31 August 2015

The bounty of the ocean produces $2.5 trillion in gross marine product per year, a roughly 10% return on its asset value of $23 trillion. However, because of overexploitation as well as wider environmental effects, the asset base is being slowly destroyed. Humanity is at a cross roads, according to a recent WWF and BCG report on the future sustainability of this natural ecosystem.

The ocean produces half the oxygen we breathe, and absorbs 30% of the anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and around 93% of the added heat arising from human-driven changes to the atmosphere. The ocean produces around 20% of the protein for around 3 billion people worldwide. It is one of the most bio diverse areas of the planet, supporting a huge variety of life – from single-celled organisms to the planet’s largest creature, the blue whale – with much of the biodiversity still undocumented.

In their ‘Reviving the Ocean Economy: the case for action’ report, the World Wildlife Fund and the Boston Consulting Group quantify the value of the ocean. The analysis looks at the direct goods and services that the ocean produces and supports, the negative effects human action has on this assets, as well as a number of strategies to safeguards its healthy future availability.

Global ocean asset value

In the analysis, the contribution of tourism, fishing, energy, shipping, biotechnology and many other sectors are considered. These sectors support millions of jobs and a ‘gross marine product’ which totals at least $2.5 trillion. When ranked among national GDPs, the ocean represents the world’s seventh largest economy, falling between the UK at $2.9 trillion and Brazil at $2.2 trillion. The research further looks at the ocean in terms of its assets, which are quantified to be a total of $24 trillion dollars. Of this, $6.9 trillion comes from fisheries, mangroves, coral reefs and sea grass; $5.2 from shipping; $7.8 trillion from coastlines; and $4.3 trillion from carbon absorption.

Capital destruction
While the oceans are a huge natural resource that provides untold economic and cultural benefits, the way in which we treat its bounty as well as the larger CO2 system, is placing increased pressure on the ocean’s resources.

One effect highlighted by the report is that of fossil fuels and deforestation. During the period 1880 to 2012, the Earth’s average surface temperature has increased 0.85°, of which 93% has been absorbed by the upper layers of the ocean. The consequence of this change is that sea surface temperature has increased in the world’s three ocean basins by 0.31°C to 0.65°C over the past 50 years. These changes in ocean temperature affect different ecosystems in different ways, including decreases in surface nutrients; effects on weather patterns; effects on sea levels; altering the timing of key life history events such as the migratory behaviour of turtles, fish and invertebrates.

Declining ocean life

As it stands, marine ecosystems are heavily exploited and degraded from human activity Of the global fish-stocks, 61% of the fish-stocks are fully exploited and 29% overexploited, almost a third of sea grasses have been lost and 50% of the world’s coral has disappeared. 

The authors conclude: “The analysis presented here shows that 70 per cent of the annual value of ocean activity is dependent on the health of the ocean. For all of the reasons outlined above, we find humanity at a crossroads. If we continue on this pathway of polluting, over-exploiting, warming, acidifying, and destroying habitats, we will squander the ocean’s considerable “shared wealth” fund over the next couple of decades. By this point, the science tells us that oceans will no longer be able to provide the healthy dividend that currently supports hundreds of millions of people.”


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