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Adaptation can help safeguard the blue economy

Building the resilience of coastal areas to climate change can help safeguard the future of the blue economy.

Why vulnerable coastal communities need climate adaptation

Building the resilience of coastal communities through climate adaptation

The “blue economy” – economic activity that relies on oceans and seas – could be worth up to US$ 3 trillion by 2030. However, climate change is putting this complex network at risk.

Ocean temperatures are rising fast. As well as contributing to rising sea levels due to melting ice caps, higher ocean temperatures are also affecting the health of oceans themselves. As oceans absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere, reduced oxygen levels threaten the health of marine species. Coral reefs, for example, could be wiped out this century unless carbon emissions are further reduced. As they provide a range of critical ecosystem services and daily subsistence for an estimated 500 million people worldwide, this would be catastrophic.

A thriving blue economy depends on the welfare of coastal communities, which are vulnerable to the fallout associated with rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and declining ocean health.

Coastal areas are under threat

Low-lying coastal regions are home to 10% of the world population, and these communities are often pivotal to a nation’s economic wellbeing. Beyond the fishing industry, coastal communities tend to be hubs of tourism and trade.

While small island states are most immediately threatened by rising sea levels, an estimated 95% of the world’s coastal areas will be affected before the end of the 21st century. Higher sea levels put them at greater risk of flooding, erosion, and saltwater incursion onto farmland threatening food production.

The cost of reconstructing after disasters could reduce resources available for other needs, such as health and education. For all these reasons, the coming decades will likely see people migrate away from coastal communities, increasing pressure on infrastructure and services in other regions and urban areas, raising the risk of conflict.

Adaptation must top the agenda

While it remains as urgent as ever to accelerate the transition to net zero, adaptation needs to be at the top of the agenda for coastal communities which are already suffering the ravages of climate change. Indeed, mitigation and adaptation are needed simultaneously.

Adaptation responses will need to draw from three possible approaches:

  • Building resilience in broad-based, small-scale ways to better equip members of coastal communities to learn to live with floods.
  • More systemic, large-scale, strategic interventions to protect coastal infrastructure.
  • Supporting people to relocate before communities become unlivable.

The latter option – managed retreat – is often seen as a last resort, given that it raises difficult questions of how to compensate property owners and manage the social impacts. However, case studies such as the relocation of a road in France demonstrate how proactive decisions can create more resilient new infrastructure and enable coastal regeneration.

All these possibilities require effective risk management and leadership. In turn this depends on collaboration, long-term thinking, and financing models that manage to align the incentives of stakeholders. The insurance sector can play a key role.

Technological advances in risk assessment and monitoring, combining satellite data and AI to model scenarios for future climate impacts, are enabling insurers to support informed decision-making about the development of marine industries. Insurance products can also incentivize the protection of biodiversity.