Over the past decade the blue economy has become a widespread buzz word. Though it refers to the control of the earth’s oceans and marine life, however, it has different and conflicting meaning for different people; hence have blurred definitions and applications. The blue economy is an ocean-based economic growth model designed to ensure sustainable use of the marine environment. It includes ‘traditional’ offshore activities (e.g. oil and gas development, shipping, fisheries) and emerging industries such as deep sea mining and renewable energy. The social acceptability of ocean based industries, sometimes known as ‘Social License to Operate’ (SLO), will be important to securing the future potential of a blue economy. Whilst maintaining a SLO is a challenge that is experienced differentially across various sectors, the loss of SLO in one sector may impact the level of societal trust in the broader concept to blue economy.
The term blue economy first emerged at the 2012 United Nations Convention on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), or Rio+20 Conference. The concept was promoted at the conference as the ‘marine dimension of the broader green economy’, which was defined as an economy “that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities“.
The blue economy reflects the fact that over 70% of the earth’s surface is water, and that good ocean health is of central importance for global sustainability and climate adaptation. It also recognizes that the oceans are a vital repository and supporter of global biological diversity, a critical source of food through fisheries and aquaculture and a fundamental contributor to the global economy through sea-borne trade and other uses. This focus on sustainability and ocean health distinguishes the blue economy from the broader‘ ocean economy’. The ocean economy also sometimes called the marine economy.
A SLO typically focuses on the ongoing acceptance and approval of industrial activities by stakeholders and argues for the relevance of building a relationship and dialogue between companies and these stakeholders (as opposed to the government).
A number of scholars engaged in research into SLO have theorized a spectrum of SLO, ranging from full acceptance (or identification) through to complete rejection, as detailed below:
Withheld/withdrawn: industrial activities are in danger of being denied, restricted and/or discontinued.
Acceptance: the industrial activity is seen as legitimate and there is a tentative willingness to let them proceed.
Approval: credibility exists and there is stakeholder’s support for the industrial activities.
Psychological identification: a high level of trust exists and stakeholders identify the contribution of the industrial activities to their interests.
The focus on stakeholder and community support for industrial operations requires an initial consideration of who are the relevant stakeholders, or in other words –who ‘grants’ the social license? These are generally thought of as groups that are impacted by or concerned about developments, or groups that are seen as important to engage with around questions of social acceptability. These may include‘ communities of place’, such as neighboring landholders, and/or ‘communities of interest’, such as environmental interest groups or user groups such as recreational fishers.
Following identification of the relevant stakeholder groups, it is then important to understand and identify the primary issues of concern which are likely to influence SLO. In other words, what impacts and concerns are raised by these stakeholders, and are there specific issues or perceptions that are of concern to these groups which need to be addressed in order to build or maintain their support and trust? This may differ across and within the stake holder groups, according to arrange of influences, including the values, beliefs and world views which underpin their notions of sustainability or appropriate use of the environment. A next step is then to discuss how to ensure on-going trust and support from these stakeholders, that is what approaches are being taken to address stakeholders’ concerns, or avoid potential concerns.
Finally, the research found that across all sectors the ‘blue economy’ appears to be well equipped to respond to the technical and technological challenges associated with managing tangible impacts, particularly environmental risks, through innovation, research and mitigation strategies. A significantly greater challenge appears to lie in the most appropriate response to more intangible impacts, which have a strong relationship with the values, beliefs and ideologies of the communities of interest with whom the different industries are interacting. This will continue to be a challenge as the blue economy grows. At present it appears these often intractable issues are primarily dealt within the political realm where decision makers are asked to mediate between conflicting values, and government lobbying can be expected to occur from both sides of these somewhat polarized debates.
The clear majority of marine industries who participated in this research, considered themselves to be in a relatively vulnerable position in relation to SLO. Most felt that their sector is largely accepted and/or tolerated but has occasional issues of concern with social acceptability, such as with particular stakeholder groups. Given the consistencies found across all sectors, an integrated approach to researching, monitoring and addressing SLO is recommended, with some priority areas identified.
Stakeholder identification and understanding, including developing an improved understanding of the nature of stakeholder concerns and the values and beliefs which underpin them. Understanding where shared values exist and where they differ will assist in informing how dialogue and negotiation can best be approached and how long-term relationships can be developed overtime.
Best practice development and sharing, including facilitating opportunities for sectors to exchange knowledge on SLO challenges and approaches.
Expanding the SLO toolbox, with a particular focus on approaches to addressing less tangible impacts. This may include new and innovative responses to stakeholder engagement, for example through participatory blue economy planning, benefit sharing arrangements and improved incorporation of data on social values into Marine Spatial Planning exercises.
Evaluation and Monitoring, by developing systems of tracking SLO overtime in order to guard against SLO ‘shocks’ to a business or sector and the blue economy as a whole. There were a range of differences and similarities experienced across the ocean industries who participated in this research, in relation to understanding and managing SLO.
Summary of findings across sectors:
|Resource Extraction (oil and gas and seabed mining)||All, especially International NGOs||Benefit sharing, managing environmental impacts||Technical responses through innovation and research, often to demonstrate to Government and communities a commitment to minimizing environmental impacts||Lower levels of support on average–most participants unsure or a feeling that SLO is currently withheld or accepted to some degree.|
|Marine Renewables||All, with slightly higher emphasis on local & Indigenous communities||Resource conflict/competing uses||No clear trends, but emphasison pre approval phase in demonstrating environmental compliance||Lower levels of support on average–most participant sun sure or a feeling that SLO is currently with held or accept ed to some degree.|
|Fisheries||Broad ‘general||Conflict with||Certification schemes||Varying levels of SLO,|
|public’||Other users,||And other forms of||from approval|
|statements||Ideological||Public relations||through to|
|And cross||Differences||with drawn. On|
|section of||average a feeling of|
|Aquaculture||Conflict with other users, and managing environmental impacts||Focus on innovation and research||Varying levels of SLO, from identification through to withheld. Likely to relate closely to type and nature of aquaculture operation.|
|Shipping||Broad ‘general public’ statements and cross section of stakeholders identified–most within the context of being‘ invisible’||Amenity (e.g. noise and dust) and contamination concerns (e.g. pollution, oils pills etc)||Focus on government relations and lobby in gas well as innovation and research into technical responses to improve environmental performance.
Emerging accreditation schemes.
|Feeling of acceptance with occasional issues of concern, sense of largely flying ‘under the radar’.|
Finally, many sectors indicated that they are not currently actively involved in monitoring community perceptions in relation to their sector or business. Without systems of tracking SLO overtime, challenges or loss of SLO are more likely to come as a shock to a business or sector and may have larger implications for the blue economy as a whole. Large scale, long term and cross sectoral analysis of SLO may be best achieved through a collaborative approach which pools resources and creates efficiencies of scale.
[box type=”note” align=”” class=”” width=””]The author, Mr. Nazir Ahmed Shaikh, is a regular contributor of PAGE. He is a freelance columnist and an academician by profession. Currently he is associated with SZABIST as Registrar and could be reached at email@example.com.[/box]