Blog: Why we need to tackle the ocean funding crisis

28 February 2022
Scuba divers observe a Parrot fish near coral reef

Blog by Commonwealth Secretary-General, the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC

A few weeks ago, a team of marine scientists made a stunning discovery off the coast of Tahiti in the South Pacific, which they would later describe as “magical”. Diving 30 to 65 metres below the ocean surface, they encountered a magnificent pristine coral reef, stretching 3 kilometres in length and up to 65 metres wide, exploding with giant rose-shaped corals. Not only did this make it one of the largest healthy coral reefs on record, the depth at which it was found is also exceedingly rare—most known coral reefs sit around 25 metres below the surface or less.

A lack of finances flowing to the ocean

Given that a quarter of all sea creatures live in and around coral reefs, the discovery has been hailed as a boon for marine biodiversity research. It also made me realise just how little we know about the ocean and how important it is to invest in its protection.

Herein lies the challenge. Ocean conservation, research and sustainable development are alarmingly underfunded worldwide. Despite covering more than 70% of the planet, the ocean remains “out of sight, out of mind” for many, especially since 60% of it is beyond national jurisdictions. It can also be hard to imagine that something so primordially vast could actually be under strain and in need of safeguarding.

The lack of investment in the ocean is self-evident and truly concerning. Of all the Sustainable Development Goals, SDG 14 on the ocean is by far the least funded, representing a minuscule 0.01% of all SDG funding from development finance up to 2019, and only 0.56% of all philanthropic funding since 2016. Even the crucial link between ocean and climate is massively undervalued, judging by the allocation of international climate finance. Our calculations indicate that less than 2% of support from the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and only 0.7% of Global Environmental Facility (GEF) funding for climate change go towards projects that include ocean action. Yet the gap between ocean conservation requirements and funding available—around US$149bn—is equivalent to just 3% of the estimated US$5trn spent globally on fossil-fuel subsidies every year.

Clearly there is a mismatch here. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), ocean economies are worth US$3trn-6trn per year and support 350m jobs worldwide. Beyond that, the value that marine ecosystems services provide humanity through clean water generation, temperature regulation, carbon storage, food, energy and other marine resources is approximately US$30bn annually. What we invest in the ocean—to conserve natural ecosystems, fight marine pollution, tackle ocean climate change or develop a sustainable blue economy—should reflect the immense wealth we garner from it.

A rising tide of ocean investment

Nonetheless, there are some developments that should give us hope. The GCF has recently invested in the Global Fund for Coral Reefs, and philanthropic funding for marine conservation has doubled over the past decade, from US$520m in 2010 to US$1.2bn in 2020. The number of marine funders tripled from 486 to around 1,600 over the same period. To help keep track, the Commonwealth Secretariat developed an online database to direct member countries towards more than US$170m of international funding available for ocean-related projects.

To unlock access to critical ocean-related climate finance, we have also deployed ocean-climate finance experts to help governments incorporate these elements into their proposals to climate funds. This is through a collaboration of two flagship initiatives: the Commonwealth Blue Charter, an agreement by 54 countries to cooperate on ocean action, and the Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub, a programme that deploys specialist long-term advisers to support countries in accessing climate funding. Countries have also raised the need for a Blue Charter Action Fund to incubate and accelerate home-grown ocean solutions, to be considered at the upcoming meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government in Kigali, Rwanda, this June.

Solutions lie at all levels, across all sectors

To truly tackle the ocean funding crisis, we need action at all levels and across all sectors. Governments can help de-risk ocean investments and integrate the blue economy in national budgets and policy. They could re-align subsidies with societal values and shift from unsustainable subsidies towards rebuilding natural ocean assets. Development partners can use fairer rules around international development finance and integrate sustainability requirements into financial services and investments. The private sector can cooperate with academia to share ocean data, and work with governments to engineer green infrastructure. New multilateral financial tools, including blue bonds, debt conversion, blended finance and incentivised public-private partnerships can be structured alongside conventional development.

The solutions are with us—we need only harness the collective will to carry them out. Our shared ocean, our shared values, our shared future are worth it.

This blog was first published on the World Ocean Initiative website.


Media contact

  • Josephine Latu-Sanft  Senior Communications Officer, Communications Division, Commonwealth Secretariat
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