Towards a Sustainable Ocean Economy: The Role of Coastal Cities and Regions

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On 20 June 2024 we discussed how the international community can offer a path towards a sustainable ocean economy involving coastal cities and regions.


The Role of Cities in the Ocean Economy


Speakers of the Geneva Urban Debate “Towards a Sustainable Ocean Economy: What Role for Cities?” emphasized the critical but often under-valued role of cities in the ocean economy. Some were concerned that we are already reaching some of the planetary limits of the marine ecosystem. They explained the complexity of managing the ocean-urban nexus – starting from the environmental questions through socio-economic shifts to regulatory issues. They explored the multifaceted roles that cities and regions can assume to foster synergistic relationships between human settlements and their coastal environments. Approximately 27% of the global population – equivalent to around 2.15 billion people – resides in coastal cities and the nearby coastal zone.

Most ocean and coastal cities share a symbiotic relationship with the sea. They rely on it for connectivity, trade, sustenance, leisure, and tourism. UN Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimated the value of the ocean economy is estimated at $2.6 trillion in 2019 (UNCTAD, 2021). However, this relationship is not unidirectional. Cities are also a huge cause of significant amounts of solid waste, wastewater, and chemical pollution. This problem is particularly acute in cities where sewage facilities, pollution control, and solid waste and wastewater management and services are not proportional to urban sizes and growth. While speakers focused on these issues as difficult but surmountable challenges, they clearly identified sea-level rise and climate events as an existential threat to coastal communities worldwide.


Vulnerability of Coastal Communities amd Financial Needs for Sustainable Ocean Economy


Through the example of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), speakers explored the vulnerability of coastal communities to climate change and natural disasters. Different aspects of the ocean economy affect coastal communities. Fishing is often artisanal, and changes in the marine ecosystem have significant consequences for the livelihoods of the concerned population. Marine tourism is a growing part of local economies, and a sustainable approach to the sector can yield long-term positive effects. However, there are also challenges. Waste from economic activities, tourism, transport and urban development represent an increasing burden of solid waste management, which is the responsibility of local governments almost everywhere. About 47 per cent of municipal plastic waste is poorly disposed of and likely to enter the ocean (UNEP, 2021).

Oceans and coastal cities serve as dynamic interfaces where human behavior and urban development intersect with marine ecosystems and climate dynamics. To ensure coastal cities and regions can work towards a sustainable ocean economy, financing at the local level is indispensable. Just for global coastal protection an estimated US$18.3 trillion will needed by 2100 (IPCC, 2022). The international community needs to generate options for financing sustainable policies and projects. Institutionalized dialogues can help to find the right path, especially in cases of transboundary challenges, which are often the case regarding the ocean economy.


Role of UN Trade and Development, examples and best practices


We learned about how UN Trade and Development can assist member states and subnational entities to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – taking into account national differences in delineation of responsibilities and jurisdictions at different levels of government. UN Trade and Development provides, at member states’ requests, policy recommendations to different levels of government that encompass trade regulatory frameworks, land and ocean space planning, economic diversification, infrastructure resilience, and capacity building initiatives aimed at fostering sustainable development along coastal areas. The organization advances trade data collection and analysis and helps design local sustainable policies.

Good examples from Barcelona (Spain), Yangzhou (China), Mombasa (Kenya), and Copenhagen (Denmark) showed that inclusive solutions exist for the mutually beneficial co-existence of the ocean ecosystem and the people in coastal areas. These examples should be shared directly through inter-coastal cities exchanges or through the related work of international organizations, such as UN Trade and Development.


Oceans’ Multifaceted Roles: Local and Regional Governments


The vast expanse of oceans and seas around the globe play multifaceted roles: they provide sustenance, harbor minerals, and serve as vital trade routes, facilitating 80 per cent of international commerce. While trade remains the main source of economic output in coastal areas (an estimated US$1.8 trillion is generated by trade of marine-based goods and services), speakers drew the attention to the socio-economic shift from trade to a more complex ocean economy approach (marine and coastal tourism is estimated at US$400 billion). Complexity also requires more education, training, and necessary financing. The ultimate goal is to reach out to the hearts and minds of decision-makers, practitioners, and the young generation to make sure we are aiming for a sustainable ocean economy.

Given their exclusive and shared responsibilities in urban planning, public services, economic development, transport, health, infrastructure, and environmental controls, Local and Regional Governments (LRGs) play a pivotal role in the ocean economy. They are called upon to champion sustainable development, aligning their actions with relevant SDGs. The Integrated Maritime Strategy of Catalonia, Spain, until 2030 offers a best practice, building on a holistic approach. It takes into account the different areas of the ocean economy: tourism, recreational activities, fishing, aquaculture, marine resources, renewable energies, biotechnology, transport, port activities, shipbuilding, and desalination. It also – and perhaps more importantly – proposes a way to balance the well-being of citizens and the sustainability of the marine environment. It uses an innovative governance model, including several levels of governments, specialized agencies, and relevant organizations.

In responding to questions, speakers agreed that integrating seawater desalination into the urban water management systems offers a potential solution to freshwater challenges. However, it requires dedicated infrastructure development and currently represents 5 times higher cost per unit.

Referring to the localization of SDGs, speakers underlined the risk that these global goals may not be realized unless local inputs and actors are integrated in the process. Global statistics based on aggregated national data do not reflect all the shades of development. Speakers suggested looking at how to localize indicators and how to offer targeted policy recommendations to local and regional governments.




The Geneva Urban Debate raised awareness about the ocean-urban nexus of a sustainable blue economy and the relevant activities by UN Trade and Development on these crucial issues. It opened the way for an information exchange between the organization and LRGs.

On the road to the United Nations Summit of the Future in September 2024 and the United Nations Ocean Conference in 2025, it is crucial to connect LRGs and international organizations to advance inclusive multilateralism and make intergovernmental decision-making more effective by integrating voices of all levels of government.

Presentations and documents are available on the UNCTAD website.




We thank the distinguished speakers of the webinar:

  • H.E. Mr. José R. Sánchez-Fung, Ambassador, Permanent Representative of the Dominican Republic to the World Trade Organization and UN Trade and Development
  • Graham Alabaster, Head of Geneva Office, UN-Habitat
  • David Vivas Eugui, Chief of Section, Ocean and Circular Economy, UN Trade and Development
  • Dr Awni Behnam, Honorary President, International Ocean Institute, Malta
  • Sergi Tudela, Director General for Maritime Policy and Fisheries, Government of Catalonia