Saving a Threatened Mediterranean Sea

A Sustainable Blue Economy

February 23, 2023
Alberto Tagliapietra
Anna Majo Crespo
10 min read
Photo credit: Alexander Tolstykh /
The Mediterranean is the world’s largest enclosed sea. It sits strategically at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia, and serves as a key economic hub for trade, transport, and tourism.

That, however, has not stopped decades of resource exploitation and the increasing effects of climate change from threatening the sea’s well-being. The entire Mediterranean basin is, in fact, one of the most sensitive regions to global warming. It is defined as a hotspot of climate change since, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, the region is warming 20% faster than the global average. 

The risks that climate change poses to the Mediterranean go beyond increasing temperatures. They include a rising water level, marine biodiversity loss, alteration of water cycles, water acidification, and more extreme weather events. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report, tens of millions of people living around the Mediterranean face a heightened risk of water shortages, coastal flooding, and exposure to deadly extreme heat. The IPCC also notes that 71% of the Middle East’s and North Africa's GDP is vulnerable to climate stress, meaning that climate change is likely to endanger the regions' development and growth. Sea-related activities in the Mediterranean generate an annual economic value of about $450 billion, a number that could drop considerably if no action is taken to fight the effects of climate change. 

Developing a sustainable blue economy for the Mediterranean must be a priority in this struggle. It is also critical for increasing the region’s resilience and catalyzing economic growth through investment in environmentally sustainable maritime activities.

Why Be Blue? 

More than 70% of the world's surface is covered by water, and more than 40% of the global population inhabits coastal areas. With an ever-growing population and land use reaching unsustainable levels, the planet’s waters should be the focus for solving some pressing global problems, such as food security, water supply, energy, and climate change mitigation. The Mediterranean region’s exceptional biological and sociocultural diversity, and its maritime sector’s role in economic growth, make the area especially important for this effort. 

The blue economy is, by definition, a low-polluting and resource-efficient economy based on sustainable production and consumption. It aims to generate economic value and employment while ensuring the environmental sustainability of oceans and seas. The blue economy, at its core, recognizes that diverse sea uses and marine ecosystems are interconnected, and that managing them more sustainably provides additional value. The blue economy encompasses all industries and sectors related to oceans, seas, and coasts, whether they are based in a marine environment (e.g., shipping or fisheries) or on land (e.g., ports and coastal tourism). Innovative sectors, such as marine renewable energy, the blue bioeconomy, and blue biotechnology, that offer significant potential for economic growth, decarbonization, and employment are also important components of the blue economy. 

The latest EU Blue Economy Report notes that established sectors of the EU blue economy in 2019 employed nearly 4.45 million people and generated about €667.2 billion in turnover and €183.9 billion in gross value added. The High Level Panel on A Sustainable Ocean Economy also finds that investment in these areas can bring great returns. Today’s investment of €2.5 trillion in four areas—offshore wind farms, sustainable ocean-based food production, decarbonization of international shipping, and conservation of habitats—could lead to net benefits of €14 trillion by 2050.


The concept of sustainably exploiting and protecting the maritime environment is not new to the Mediterranean region, where countries have joined efforts for more than 40 years to try to safeguard marine and coastal environments. The Barcelona Convention and its seven protocols is one such effort. But the blue economy as a driver of smart, sustainable, and inclusive growth is lately receiving a boost in light of the increasing effects of climate change, the development of new offshore technologies, and the rising awareness of the importance of preserving the Mediterranean.

Blue is Green

The blue economy aims to be a strong, sustainable, resilient, and climate-neutral economy. The shift to sustainability will create jobs and business opportunities, particularly in the Mediterranean, while scoring environmental gains. The decarbonization of maritime transport, fishing, tourism, and other maritime activities, all blue economy objectives, should significantly reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, thereby improving the Mediterranean's health through better water quality and thriving biodiversity. 

Countries on all sides of the sea increasingly rely on it to meet expanding demand for energy and food, two sectors in which the blue economy can play a paramount role. Increasing interest in maritime activities is already expanding many blue-economy sectors but continuing use of traditional fossil fuel energy technologies could constrain further growth. Fortunately, this can be overcome by creating opportunities for clean, low-carbon growth, as oceans and seas are the world's largest untapped renewable energy sources. The Mediterranean Sea, as other waterways, offers offshore wind farms, waves, and tides that can contribute to decarbonization. The European Commission has already recognized this, and its strategy on offshore renewable energy calls for deploying the infrastructure to produce 1,500 megawatts of offshore wind energy in the Mediterranean by 2040. The Commission’s REPowerEU strategy also prominently features marine offshore energy, in this case as an answer to the energy market disruption caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. This strategy underlines the importance of a more secure EU energy market.

The blue economy can also play an essential role in the seafood sector, a key contributor to the Mediterranean region's economy, especially as providing healthy food to a growing population in a period of environmental degradation is a significant challenge. The Food and Agricultural Organization reports that annual global fish consumption since 1961 has increased at double the rate of population growth and exceeded the growth in consumption of meat from all farmed terrestrial animals. Furthermore, the World Bank projects aquaculture to be the main source of seafood by 2030, providing employment prospects, especially in poorer countries. But even aquaculture is often accompanied by unsustainable fishing rates and a degradation of marine ecosystems. A blue economy could reverse this by establishing marine protected areas, smaller-scale fisheries, and sustainable seafood farming practices. 

Many Mediterranean governments are developing sustainable strategies to take advantage of the sea’s vast potential as an energy and food resource, particularly as reducing greenhouse emissions, securing food supply chains, and achieving energy independence have become top political priorities. Success will not come, however, without goals, and actions to achieve them, that are coordinated among economic sectors. Only a holistic approach that reconciles the complex interaction among sectors can ensure the blue economy’s success. 


Over the last 20 years, maritime spatial planning (MSP) has emerged as an important tool to achieve a more rational use of marine areas and, consequently, to promote the blue economy. MSP is based on the multipurpose use of a given space to increase economic opportunity while preserving marine ecosystems. If integrated into other tools, such as integrated coastal management, MSP can be especially helpful for boosting economic growth in unused maritime areas. This will likely be key as the natural assets of oceans and seas will inevitably come under greater pressure from growing demand for aquaculture, marine tourism, renewable energy, and fishing. For the Mediterranean, MSP as part of a holistic, coordinated approach is especially relevant. Cooperation among littoral states is lacking, which risks even more pressure on marine resources that could spiral into international disputes.

MSP’s potential lies in its ability to provide collaborative structures on local, regional, national, and international levels. It can help bring together stakeholders from various economic sectors and countries to establish long-term development plans, including those for traditional activities such as shipping, fishery, and tourism. It can also serve as a catalyst for innovative fields, such as ocean energy and blue biotechnology. The EU recognized this by approving in 2021 an MSP directive to implement a coordination mechanism among member states. But efficient coordination among them, or with other Mediterranean states, remains absent.

The Role of Cities 

Given their reliance on marine resources and the direct impact of their actions on marine ecosystems, coastal cities are major players in climate change and the blue economy. Unfortunately, they rarely have expertise in or authority over relevant regulation and management. Their economic models also often feature unsustainable practices, which lead to long-term marine ecosystem disruption. Coastal cities, therefore, must expand their leadership capabilities and pursue policies for maritime protection that simultaneously promote social development and environmental sustainability.

A 2022 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study concludes that it is crucial for coastal cities to develop a resilient, inclusive, sustainable, and circular (RISC-proof) blue economy. The study also acknowledges the importance of governance at all levels and stresses the need for central governments to pursue localized approaches while coordinating national strategies with cities and regions. This requires more than reaching beyond administrative boundaries. It demands avoiding strategies that focus solely on specific coastal areas or marine sectors but promoting sound cooperation between national and local administrations to ensure sufficient financial resources, appropriate technologies, and widespread public participation.

Coastal cities in the meantime have options to make short-term impacts. These actions include:

  • Fostering business sectors integral to the blue economy by promoting “blue” entrepreneurship
  • Promoting research and innovation in blue-economy sectors
  • Generating and revitalizing local blue ecosystems by promoting community involvement in campaigns that increase awareness of the need for such ecosystems and by increasing participation in local governance systems. 

Coasting to Success

Barcelona is an example of a coastal city committed to making itself a hub of blue economic and social development. The city adopted in 2021 the Barcelona 2030 Agenda, a package of measures to help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As part of this strategy, the city council launched the Barcelona Green Deal, a strategy focused on promoting blue sectors as an economic engine, and it allocated €40.5 million for 43 measures and 15 projects to support that goal by making Barcelona an international center of innovation, sustainability, and quality employment. The municipality has also set aside more than 52,000 square meters of its port and coastal area for a blue-economy incubation center. 

Entrepreneurship and innovation are also receiving a boost with the BlueUp program, the first blue-economy entrepreneurship program. It is led by Barcelona Activa in partnership with the Port of Barcelona, cruise company Costa Cruceros, water sports promoter Barcelona Clúster Nàutic, the Technical University of Catalonia, and Seastainable Ventures. BlueUp already supports 11 startups and has offered more than 4,500 hours of free training to facilitate employment in blue-economy sectors. One of the program’s key aspects is the partnership between the city government and 70 public and private entities from the blue ecosystem that have proposed and co-managed initiatives. This has contributed to a common strategy among all parties, public and private, an indispensable component of a holistic blue-economy approach to increase chances of success.

Barcelona is the only Mediterranean city to have adopted such a broad program to boost the blue economy and has positioned itself as a regional blue capital. More than 80% of blue-economy initiatives, such as BlueUp and the incubation center, are now underway or complete, a remarkable achievement for a strategy only 18 months old. Success is also reflected in the World Ocean Council’s decision to move its headquarters to Barcelona. The city now stands as an example for others in the Mediterranean region to emulate, with a Green Deal and a burgeoning blue economy that offer sustainable economic, environmental, and social benefits.


Anna Majo Crespo is business innovation director at Barcelona Activa and leads the strategy to boost the city’s blue economy. She is an engineer with a background in strategic consulting and change management at Accenture, and has taught entrepreneurship at the Technical University of Catalonia (UPC). She joined the Barcelona City Council with the 22@Barcelona urban transformation project and led, between 2015 and 2019, the municipality’s digital innovation, smart city and urban innovation strategies. She has experience in public-private partnerships and in working with international institutions such as the World Bank and the European Commission.

This brief is part of a partnership between the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Policy Center for the New South.

The Policy Center for the New South is a policy-oriented think tank in Rabat, Morocco, that strives to promote knowledge sharing and to contribute to discussions of key economic and international relations issues. By offering a southern perspective on major regional and global strategic challenges facing developing and emerging countries, the Policy Center for the New South aims to contribute to meaningful policymaking through its seven research programs: The New South in an Evolving Globalization, Thinking about Africa's Emergence in the New Globalization, Building an Autonomous Africa in an Interdependent World, Understanding Internal African Dynamics, Morocco in a Changing Global Environment, Rethinking the Morocco Economy, and Morocco: the Social and Territorial State.

The views and opinions expressed in the preceding text are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.