Sebastian Unger, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) and Torsten Thiele, Global Ocean Trust
The issue of marine conservation was hardly mentioned in the election campaign and the exploratory coalition talks that followed. This despite the fact that, for years, scientists have agreed that the climate crisis cannot be successfully combated without active marine conservation. Yet with the start of the coalition negotiations, this could now change. A look at the election programmes of the Green Party and the liberal FDP offers hope that a "Blue Deal" – a sustainable marine policy that is in line with the 1.5-degrees target and could improve the livelihood of those living in coastal regions – will be one of the future projects of the new coalition government.
Intact oceans are indispensable for climate protection and the prosperity of all. However, overexploitation, pollution and the effects of the climate crisis are having a serious impact on them. The North and the Baltic Seas have been in a catastrophic state for years. Comprehensive climate and biodiversity protection are crucial for oceans. While international efforts to provide this protection exist, so far there has been a lack of political pressure to implement them quickly and effectively. The coalition negotiations now offer the chance to revamp German marine policy to apply this pressure.
Three quarters of the Earth's surface are covered by the ocean, and climate and the marine environment are closely linked. Through the exchange of water, carbon and energy, the ocean plays an essential role in our climate system. Every second breath we humans take originates from the ocean. Not only that: The world's ocean is home to the greatest biodiversity. Many jobs depend on the ocean and more and more countries around the world rely on the development potential of a blue economy. With the Belt and Road Initiative, China aims to expand shipping routes between Asia, Africa and Europe and create new spheres of influence. To secure their energy and raw material needs, some nations are opening up more remote and deeper areas of the sea – often to the detriment of marine habitats.
Although many German citizens are aware of the importance of the ocean for humans and the planet, marine policy has so far played only a minor role in Germany. Responsibility for it is fragmented among numerous ministries and subordinate specialist authorities, and there is a lack of strategic discourse on interests, responsibility and possible fields of action. Aiming to change this, the Green Party has formulated their core demands in a Ten Point Plan which they hope will become the guiding principles of marine policy for their participation in the new federal government. These include the development of an ocean strategy for Germany, the creation of interministerial marine coordination, the anchoring of international marine conservation in German foreign policy, and the development of large-scale and effective marine protected areas. In addition to this, challenges such as the development of sustainable perspectives for fisheries and combating the deluge of plastic should be addressed.
While the ocean hardly appears in the platforms of the centre-right CDU or in the centre-left SPD, there is a large amount of overlap between the Green Party’s ambitions and the FDP programme. Just like the Greens, the FDP focuses on the protection of marine and coastal ecosystems as natural climate protectors. The FDP wants to expand Germany's role in international marine conservation, combat pollution, e.g. from dumped ammunitions in the North and Baltic Seas, and strengthen marine research. For the FDP, marine policy is a task for the future with economic potential, especially for innovative companies in the maritime sector.
With joint motions in the Bundestag, for example on the salvage of 1.6 million tonnes of ammunition waste in the North and Baltic Seas, the Greens and the FDP have already shown in the opposition that they have a lot in common. In addition, it is to be expected that there will be new majorities for the long overdue removal of harmful subsidies for fisheries. Even on critical issues such as a moratorium on international deep-sea mining – advocated by the Green Party – common lines can be developed now that global companies such as BMW, Volvo, Google and Samsung are also lobbying against the sourcing of mineral resources from the deep seabed.
Marine policy has long been high on the political agenda not only in the EU and many EU member states, but also in the US, China and the African Union. Many countries have established central government offices for marine policy and regularly exchange information through marine ambassadors or at the level of heads of state and government. Although the German government does support the worldwide conservation of the oceans with important initiatives such as the "Blue Action Fund" and the International Climate Initiative (IKI), politically, Germany often tends to remain on the side-lines. As a pioneer in environmental and climate policy, a globally active trading nation and an advocate for a multilateral order, Germany should also play a formative role in international ocean governance. A more coherent interlinking of marine policy fields would make it possible to set coordinated priorities for interdependent problems such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, poverty reduction, security, migration and combating the global consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is time for Germany to protect marine ecosystems more effectively, including on its own coasts, while at the same time exploiting the potential of a sustainable "blue economy". This is not just a matter of remoulding existing industries such as shipping and fishing with new technologies to make them sustainable, digital and climate neutral. It is also about exploiting opportunities in new fields, such as the ecological restoration of degraded waters, the development of hitherto untapped marine genetic resources for biotechnological and medical applications, and the digital management of marine areas. Internationally recognised German marine research already provides a foundation for this.
In order to finally anchor marine policy in political Berlin, Germany needs a "Blue Deal" now more than ever. Since similar signals have been voiced from the coastal federal states governed by the SPD, there is hope that such a reorientation in marine policy could finally succeed.