Will the New Colour for Sustainability be Blue? Exploring the Potential of Ocean Innovation

WRITTEN BY Szilvia Szabo

April 2, 2024

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Will the New Colour for Sustainability be Blue? Exploring the Potential of Ocean Innovation

Szilvia Szabo

2 Apr, 2024

We are racing against time to find solutions that will help transition to a low-carbon, more equitable, and sustainable economy while mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis. The Ocean as a Solution to Climate Change report found that full implementation of ocean-based climate solutions that are already available could reduce the “emissions gap” by up to 35 per cent, contributing to keeping global warming below 1.5°C by 2050. According to Organisation for Economic Co-operations and Development (OECD), the next big economic frontier is the ocean, which has vast potential to fulfil our needs to produce food, energy, resources, and economic values in a sustainable way. However, this is only possible if we can keep our oceans healthy, avoid acidification and pollution, and reverse the damage done to marine ecosystems. As Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry phrased it: “You cannot protect the oceans without solving climate change, and you cannot solve climate change without protecting the oceans.”

Ocean Decade
The Ocean Decade is the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development global framework launched in 2021, aiming to promote the idea that the ocean holds the key to an equitable and sustainable planet. Its vision is to facilitate and use “the science we need for the ocean we want” by involving a wide range of stakeholders and organising activities to trigger a revolution in ocean science. It aligns research, innovation, investment and initiatives that will contribute to a “well-functioning, productive, resilient, sustainable and inspiring ocean”. To unlock innovative ocean solutions, they announced 10 challenges to be addressed over a 10-year campaign period, including beating marine pollution and protecting and restoring ecosystems and biodiversity. One of their flagship programs is the Blue Climate Initiative, which engages stakeholders in embracing solutions to urgent global challenges, including ocean and human health, sustainable food supplies, renewable energy, and vibrant ocean economies.

The initiative is structured around the three pillars of building resilient, thriving, and equitable communities, understanding and protecting the ocean, and restoring a healthy climate. They host the Ocean Innovation Prize, which provides three winners US $1 million in funding to support innovations that mitigate climate change through ocean-related strategies. One of the recent winners was an Indonesian project that manufactures seaweed-based bioplastic through a sustainable production process that also reduces carbon emissions. Another selected innovation is using solar process technology to turn invasive Sargassum algae into a carbon sink, together with producing valuable outputs, such as clean hydrogen and electricity. The third chosen solution has developed a novel seaweed feed supplement that reduces livestock methane emissions by over 90% at minimal feed inclusion rates.

Emerging Ocean Innovations

Credit: CorPowerOcean-C4

A new frontier in producing clean energy is harvesting the power of waves in different forms, such as floating units converting the movements of the waves into electricity that can be fed into offshore or onshore units. These devices can be shaped like large buoys or `floating carpets` generating power as they rise and fall with the waves. Although most of these technologies are in the pilot phase, testing and improving resilience and efficiency, they hold a promise to create a truly sustainable energy source that would allow us to move away from fossil fuels. Scientists have estimated that if wave energy was fully harnessed worldwide, it could meet the world`s annual electricity needs. Still, according to the International Energy Agency, ocean power generation needs to grow by 33% a year to achieve a net-zero world by 2050.

Credit: Sea Wave Energy Limited

But new energy sources can come from surprising places. For instance, researchers at the University of Maryland in the US are testing biodegradable electrolytes made from crab shells to develop zinc batteries that could store power from large-scale wind and solar sources. The commonly used lithium-ion batteries are functional but have massive social and environmental impacts, considering extraction, refining, and disposal.

Credit: iStock_wave

Algae-based biofuels are another opportunity to explore innovative ways to create sustainable alternative solutions. Besides energy, there are other valuable resources that can come from the ocean. Seaweed, a versatile material with an aggregated positive impact, is already making its way to mainstream markets in different formats. From kelp burgers to bio-packaging, beauty products, or health supplements, seaweed can become the ultimate sustainable resource of the future. It also contributes to battling climate change through its capability of absorbing significant amounts of carbon dioxide and other harmful elements like nitrogen.

Blue Carbon
Organisations are heavily investing in carbon offsetting to reach mandatory or voluntary targets, and the demand for carbon credits is likely to increase 15-fold by 2030 from 2020 levels, worth up to $50 billion based on predictions published by the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets. Predictions are that carbon credit buyers will look for premium-quality credits and prioritise nature-based solutions to avoid backslash and ensure the long-term viability of their carbon management strategies.

Blue carbon credits – that stands for carbon captured by the world`s ocean and coastal ecosystems – are now considered premium products in the voluntary carbon market. One reason behind the high demand for these blue credits is that marine habitats can sequester carbon up to 10 times faster than mature forests. The three main carbon-sinking natural habitats are mangroves, tidal marshes and seagrass, with the capability of storing massive amounts of carbon when protected and restored. However, if destroyed or degraded, they emit the accumulated carbon and become a significant source of additional greenhouse gas emissions. Blue carbon projects range from investing in conservation to restoration projects, providing compelling business cases by turning natural capital into a powerhouse for positive social, economic, and environmental solutions.

Investing in the Blue Economy
The EU Commission defines the Blue Economy as all economic activities based on or related to the oceans, seas, and coasts. The High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel) claims that the return on investment in ocean innovations can be as high as $5 for every $1 invested. On a larger scale, that means that a global investment of $3.7 trillion would generate about $26.5 trillion in total benefits from 2020 to 2050.

The growing number of sustainable ocean innovations shows massive potential in this sector, but fully embracing these solutions would require a significant increase in investment. Currently, the most investable areas within the Blue Economy are fisheries and aquaculture, maritime transportation, tourism, climate change mitigation and renewable energy. Besides bonds and larger-scale investments, incubators focused on ocean innovations do trailblazer work and show tangible results by supporting entrepreneurs in starting and scaling projects. Some of the leaders in this field are the Katapult Ocean Accelerator, with a focus on early-stage ventures and seed funds; SWEN Capital Partners, which has €95m in capital in its Blue Ocean Fund; and the Investable Ocean online hub, which directly connects investors with pre-vetted projects.

Visionary Entrepreneurs

Credit: PROTEUS

Research-based enterprises are paving the way for us to change how we look at ocean-based solutions. Award-winning Irish entrepreneur Kate Dempsey, founder of Aqualicence and Ondine, is reimagining aquaculture and marine renewables while running multiple companies to enhance their partners` involvement with the Blue Economy. For instance, they design offshore renewable energy projects with marine ecosystem health at the core by using Oceanite. This material mimics natural oceanic compounds to build underwater structures that help restore coral reefs and enrich biodiversity.

A futuristic vision for exploring underwater life was brought to life by renowned aquanaut and environmentalist Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. He envisioned designing PROTEUS, the world’s most advanced underwater scientific station and habitat, to address pressing global challenges through research and ocean-based innovations in the area of medicinal discoveries, sustainable food, and climate change. The idea is based on the concept of creating an underwater version of the International Space Station that could allow for exploration and experimentation while spending more time on the station. Constructions are anticipated to start in 2025 in the Caribbean Sea at a depth of 60 feet in rich, biodiverse, marine-protected water.

Next waves

There is still much more to cover in these areas, such as establishing scientific evidence, prototyping products, raising funds, and forming alliances to connect the dots to embrace the massive potential in our oceans. It is in our best interests to preserve healthy marine life as a foundation for ocean- based innovations that can open up new avenues to create economic value with social and environmental benefits.

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