UNSW partners with UK government to transform ocean accounting

Initial funding for the Global Ocean Accounts Partnership will enable more countries to measure and manage their ocean wealth to deliver a more sustainable future.
Belinda Henwood | UNSW Newsroom
Floating fishing villages transform the ocean landscape. Photo: Shutterstock.

The UK government has announced a $1.8 million initial contribution to the Global Ocean Accounts Partnership (GOAP), coordinated by UNSW Sydney. The GOAP is one of the first projects announced under the first £16.2 million in funding from the UK’s £500 million Blue Planet Fund. Established to tackle climate change, restore ocean health and reduce poverty in developing countries, the Blue Planet Fund is financed from the UK’s overseas aid budget. This round of funded projects will increase marine protection, tackle plastic pollution and the decline of global coral reefs.

The UK’s investment in the GOAP builds on the first global dialogue on ocean accounting at UNSW in late 2019. The University and the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) co-hosted representatives of 18 governments on campus to explore options for technical and policy collaboration.

“This announcement by the UK government is welcomed by UNSW and is an important recognition of the shared responsibility for our natural environment,” UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs said.

“It is incumbent upon all countries to collaborate and draw on the rich knowledge in our universities to support peoples whose wellbeing relies on the sustainability of our ocean.”

Measurement of progress for the ocean economy currently focuses on production indicators such as contribution to gross domestic product (GDP). With current data and technology, it’s now possible for all countries in the future to account for the status of the natural wealth of the ocean – the most important measure of progress towards sustainability of the ocean economy. The development and integration of ocean accounts into existing national accounts can provide a dynamic evidence base that goes beyond a single indicator of production to reflect the full value of the ocean economy.

The $1.8 million Blue Planet funding will provide strategic support for the GOAP, including scaling of pilot projects in five developing countries – in Africa and the Asia Pacific – and facilitation of increased global technical and policy collaboration. Global research collaboration will enable the development of common technical guidelines, supporting the UN Statistical Commission’s efforts to adopt internationally standardised guidance for ocean accounting by 2023. Technical guidance on ocean accounting for project and program developers and managers will facilitate comparable tracking of progress towards sustainable development across key social, environmental and economic indicators.

UNSW’s contributions to the collaboration will be led by Dr Ben Milligan, an interdisciplinary Scientia Fellow based at UNSW faculties of Law & Justice, Science and Business. Dr Milligan is director of the GOAP Secretariat, which the University has hosted since 2019.

“The ocean is one of our most precious assets and our well-being depends on a healthy ocean. This project is an exciting step towards ensuring that decision-makers around the world can account – and be held to account – for how the ocean is changing over time and how our decisions about the ocean affect society and the economy for better or worse,” Dr Milligan said.

The project links expertise across UNSW, spanning marine science, data science, accounting and economics, and ocean law and governance.

“The ocean is warming, acidifying, deoxygenating, and we have been replacing protein with plastic around the globe. If we are to thrive beyond this decade, we must work together at a frantic pace to firstly halt and then reverse the damage to our shared environmental assets.

“Our future depends on the work of Dr Milligan and his team assisting in the creation of highly integrated governance and accounting for our rapidly changing ocean and coasts,” UNSW Dean of Science Professor Emma Johnston said.

The project is supported by the UNSW Institute for Global Development (IGD) and UNSW Global Water Institute (GWI), both of which have played key roles in delivery of work to date. Hosted by UNSW Law & Justice, it also forms a key part of the faculty’s new Sustainable Development Reform Hub, which seeks to co-develop a cluster of enduring change-making collaborations with external stakeholders through a consultation process and seed funding.   

Australian government seed funding will grow community of practice

UNSW, partnering with Madras School of Economics (MSE), has also received funding to further the development and use of ocean accounting under the Australia-India Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative Partnership (AIIPOIP) program. Senator Marise Payne, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, recently announced the inaugural grants. In a media release, she said the program “reiterates Australia's strong commitment to working with close regional partners in delivering an open, inclusive, resilient, prosperous and rules-based maritime order”.

The UNSW–MSE partnership will support a growing community of practice developing ocean accounting. The team will tackle a range of ocean challenges, including marine plastic pollution, developing ways to measure where the plastic is coming from and how much may be reaching the ocean.

UNSW Science Scientia PhD candidate in marine sciences Jordan Gacutan, one of the members of the GOAP Secretariat team led by Dr Milligan, said both Australia and India face several challenges in maritime ecology.

“This partnership with Madras School of Economics will strengthen our ability to deliver a concerted international response to shared ocean challenges, such as the rapid loss of key ecosystems and the increase in harmful plastic pollutants.

“By understanding how much we rely on ocean ecosystems, and how much we stand to lose from their deterioration, we can better mobilise the resources and investment needed for ecosystems to thrive into the future,” Mr Gacutan said.