A sea of ideas to combat an ocean of problems. Europe and the whole world are preparing to face the greatest challenge of our time: climate change. And they are beginning with the sea.
Why invest in blue?
In the past they were the primordial ‘cradle’ of life on Earth and without them we would not exist today, but the oceans continue to be essential for our survival in the present. It’s also relevant to bear in mind that 90% of the increase in heat generated by global warming to date has been absorbed by the sea, which, as it warms, removes a third of total carbon dioxide emissions.
It doesn’t stop there, however: the sea is the source of 50% of the oxygen in our atmosphere. In practical terms, it gives us every second breath. The higher ocean temperatures rise, the more acidified the oceans become, damaging the food chain, destroying natural habitats and causing a progressive decline in underwater life. Simply put, less food for us.
The ocean today provides a continuous source of protein to meet the needs of two billion people, yet bad practices such as overfishing and aggressive harvesting over time have undermined the sustainability of marine ecosystems, causing migration and the disappearance of entire fish populations worldwide.
Not to mention plastic: As of 2021, eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the sea every year (one tonne every four seconds) and the ingestion of microplastics by marine animals and microorganisms ends up bringing plastic to our tables.
The sea is the source of 50% of the oxygen in our atmosphere. In practical terms, it gives us every second breath.
Warmer oceans also mean an increase in the volume of water and the progressive melting of ice. In other words, it means rising sea levels, a phenomenon that will affect between 80 and 100 million people living in coastal areas, doomed to be submerged by 2100. But that’s not all, a warmer ocean also means more frequent and extreme weather events: a genuine ‘storm catalyst’, which is partly contributing to exacerbating the violent tropicalisation effects of climate change.
Degrees and professions in Mare Nostrum
The Mediterranean Sea’s temperature is rising by 20% more than all other seas in the world, according to the latest report by the European Mediterranean Assembly. This has led to enormous changes in recent years, such as the arrival of countless tropical species and the disruption of native marine habitats. Yet it doesn’t stop there: 32,500 plastic bottles are dumped in the Mediterranean every minute, and the consequences of climate change have already begun to affect Italy.
The Mare Nostrum is a real emergency, with its waters washing about 7,500 kilometres of our coastline and intrinsically linking the history, culture and traditions of our nation. It is precisely with tomorrow in mind that Italy, in the wake of the European blue wave, is moving towards policies and investments that place our sea in the foreground, with a view to the future.
This blue economy is the ultimate synonym for true sustainability: a varied sector that offers more and more professional outlets and which every year sees the emergence of increasingly diversified and specialised degrees in our country, confirming a positive trend in terms of both student enthusiasm in terms of the number of enrolments and employment opportunities in the labour market.
The old and new ‘maritime degrees’ are going through a fertile period, destined to last for the foreseeable future thanks to the ‘blue’ investment campaign launched by Europe for post-pandemic recovery.
“Unlike in the past, there is greater diversification of training in the sector and also greater demand from employers, in Italy, where it is still difficult, and especially abroad”, explains Giorgia Gioacchini, Professor of Reproductive Biology of Marine Vertebrates at the Marche Polytechnic University, where since 2003 there has been a European Master’s degree course (with the possibility of dual language) in marine biology.
Rising from the ashes of the biological sciences course, this course of study last year, despite the pandemic, confirmed the positive trend in its enrolment figures, registering 221 students in 2020 (of whom around 50 per cent were foreigners) compared to 171 in 2019.
The prospects for the professional world are multifold: zoologists, biologists, botanists, ecologists, naturalists, environmental guides. There are also many job opportunities in the public and private sectors: research bodies, marine protected areas, environmental consultancy.
Unlike in the past, there is greater diversification of training in the sector and also greater demand from employers, in Italy and especially abroad.
Giorgia Gioacchini, professor of Reproductive Biology of Marine Vertebrates at the Marche Polytechnic University
“There is also a steering committee, set up by the university together with representatives of companies, which allows students to see what awaits them in the world of work and offers a valuable opportunity for discussion and suggestions”, adds Gioacchini. “Traineeships are available in various facilities such as aquaculture centres, research centres, recovery centres for marine organisms, the Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (Ispra) or the CNR. As for scholarships, there are both Erasmus projects (Stockholm, Vergen, Oslo, Valencia, Genoa…) and non-European CampusWorld (Australia, United States, South Africa, Madagascar, etc.)”.
Activities in the field also include the possibility of taking a free, limited number diving course to secure a basic licence (Open Padi) and to dive. Excursions are also made to the local Conero Riviera, with the mobile laboratory located on “Actea”, a fully equipped vessel. The institute also has aquarium laboratories.
Another interesting reality is represented by the University of Padua, where this year a new international master’s degree course in Marine Biology was established at the Chioggia campus. “Today the market is changing and there are good opportunities both in Italy and abroad,” explains Laura Airoldi, professor of Practical Marine Ecology. “Despite the dramatic impact of the pandemic and all the difficulties it has entailed, this year we have seen an increase of over 200% in the number of foreign students enrolled compared to 2020. It’s a good sign of recovery”.
The course prepares different types of tomorrow’s professionals: whether marine biologists, those working in the field of environmental rehabilitation or sustainable fisheries, etc. “Possible employment destinations range from large blue market companies to private associations, public and municipal bodies or Arpa centres and so on. Our students engage in various field activities such as beach litter monitoring, taking stock of pollution on local beaches or sampling in different environments”.
Since 2016, Lombardy has also offered an international master’s degree course in Marine Sciences at the University of Milan-Bicocca, chaired by Daniela Basso, Professor of Marine Geology. This is where ‘marine’ sustainability managers are trained, specialising in resource management and sustainability, two elements to which companies today pay much more attention than in the past.
“We had 25 students enrolled in the opening year, but now we have 60 students admitted to the selection process for the next academic year, 25-30% of whom are from abroad”, says Basso. “Competition is very high and most of the entrants are girls. On average they achieve very good results: one of our best students won an internship at Unesco Italy and also took part in the PreCop26 (the preparatory conference for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) held in Milan at the end of September”.
But the distance from the sea for the Lombardy institute is only apparent: The many internships, Erasmus programmes and international collaborations available mean that students can both complete their experimental theses directly in the field and gain important experience. Major destinations include Norway, Greece (Athens), Messina, Spotorno, the MaRHE Center in the Maldives, the Seychelles Islands, whale shark studies in the small state of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. There are also partnerships with the Villasimius Marine Protected Area in Sardinia, Utrecht University, the Special Integrative Fund for Research (FISR) and the Oikos Institute in Mozambique.
“There are trained professionals in Italy”, says Basso. “However, the management of marine environments cannot be delegated to private individuals, but should be entrusted to local institutional bodies“.
At the Ostia campus of the University of Roma Tre, on the other hand, this year’s three-year degree in Marine Technology Engineering (established in 2018) has begun to bear fruit, with its first graduate last July, who will be followed by another ten students in October. This degree differs from the other classic ‘maritime degrees’ in that it has a strong engineering focus and offers careers in sectors such as renewable energy, marine robotics or coastal protection, both in the public and private sectors, i.e. the Environmental Protection Agency, NGOs, organisations and institutions, associations,…
“It is still an engineering degree. It’s a very flexible branch that offers more outlets and job offers”, comments Leopoldo Franco, professor in coastal and harbour engineering. “In the first year the course had 140 enrolments, while in 2019 and 2020, despite COVID, it never fell below 100. And while the prevailing stereotype is that there should be a male majority for degrees of this type, every year we have seen a fair presence of females as well, with 40% girls enrolled out of at least 100 students”.
There are trained professionals in Italy. However, the management of marine environments cannot be delegated to private individuals, but should be entrusted to local institutional bodies.
Daniela Basso, professor of Marine geology at the University of Milan-Bicocca
Students also make visits to ports, shipyards and the coastal environment. Starting this year, undergraduates will also have access to the next two master’s degrees (also established in 2018), which will deepen and complete the three-year degree: mechanical engineering for marine resources and Sustainable coastal and ocean engineering.
The course offering perhaps the largest number of maritime-related degrees at national level is undoubtedly that of the University of Genoa’s Maritime Centre, chaired by Michele Viviani, which was set up in 2019. There, students can choose from five different Bachelor’s degrees and seven Master’s degrees, involving some 2,800 students and 400 lecturers and researchers.
“Sustainability is no longer just about the environment, it has to be understood in broader terms”, explains Viviani. “Today we are witnessing the emergence of many new professional figures and it is now that we need to make a decisive change of pace, making the new emerging skills available to society”.
With figures like that, the variety of subjects covered, skills and professional opportunities are countless, as are the internships and field experiences, distributed both around the Mediterranean and abroad: the Maldives is one example.
The overall employment balance of the members has always remained positive, with constant growth over time: “In naval engineering and port management, one year after graduation 70% of students are already employed, with peaks of 80-90%”, concludes Viviani. “This figure rises to 95% in the third year”.
At the Monte Sant’Angelo complex at the University of Naples Federico II, students can pursue a Master’s degree in Marine biology and aquaculture, one of the first international degrees to be established in Italy. According to course lecturer Anna Di Cosmo, “in recent years there has been a greater awareness of marine resources among families and students”, as evidenced by the steady numbers enrolled over the years. “Even last year, during the pandemic, despite all the difficulties due to distance learning, time zones and problems with embassies, we had 31 foreign students enrolled: which is a success for us”.
The course trains scholars and managers of biodiversity and also offers a free scientific diving course, thanks to which it is possible to obtain a basic or an advanced diving licence. In addition to the prestigious collaboration with the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Naples, the university offers various Erasmus and internships in oceanographic centres and facilities around Europe and the world: the Ifremer institute near Brest in France, the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience institute in Florida (USA), or even in Sweden, Croatia, Portugal.
“We are a nation with a deep historical and cultural vocation for the sea”, concludes Di Cosmo. “Until recently, political forces complained about the lack of university-trained ‘sea’ professionals. However, it is now up to politicians to take action, especially in creating new jobs. Otherwise it is inevitable that young people will seek and find more opportunities abroad”.
It is now up to politicians to take action, especially in creating new jobs. Otherwise it is inevitable that young people will seek and find more opportunities abroad.
Anna Di Cosmo, professor of Marine biology and aquaculture at the University of Naples Federico II
Last but not least, there is also a specialised degree in Global Change Ecology in Trieste, open to 20-25 students each year. “Our long tradition of study had become somewhat lost, but now we are investing heavily in young people and research”, says Antonio Terlizzi, professor of zoology and marine biology at the University of Trieste. “The Gulf of Trieste is perfect for observation: this is due to extreme temperature variations and the hottest and coldest water in the Mediterranean”.
“To be truly green, we must also think blue“. These were the words of Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, commenting last May on the European Green Deal’s new approach to a sustainable blue economy. Not surprisingly, the focus of the Next Generation Eu was precisely on the blue economy, a business that will have a global annual value of USD 3 trillion by 2030, especially following the severe blow COVID dealt to the maritime economy (OCSE data).
From fishing to fish farming, from coastal tourism to maritime transport, through to marine engineering and port activities: all the different sectors of the blue economy will have to reduce their climate impact in the coming years.
This sustainable transition in the marine sector will require investment in new technologies and innovative techniques (the Horizon Europe 2021-2027 programme will also contribute 35% of the missions dedicated to the oceans) such as wave and tidal energy, the bio-economy and algae production as an alternative source of protein, state-of-the-art fishing equipment, the fight against coastal erosion to reduce the risk of flooding, and the restoration of marine ecosystems.
A mix of sustainable thermal, wind, wave and tidal energies could generate a quarter of Europe’s electricity by 2050. Or again: by managing to protect 30% of Europe’s marine areas, we would be able to reverse the process of biodiversity loss and repopulate our fish stocks.
A mix of sustainable thermal, wind, wave and tidal energies could generate a quarter of Europe’s electricity by 2050.
This will also create new businesses and professions, generating both economic and social benefits and moving ever closer to a sustainable circular economy model.
Pursuing the complete decommissioning of offshore platforms and, above all, completing the decarbonisation of maritime transport will also be crucial to achieving the Green Deal’s main objectives of climate neutrality and zero emissions.
With these objectives in mind, the European Commission and the European Investment Bank will step up their joint effort to promote an increasingly sustainable blue economy, working with Member States to contribute to funding.
The Maritime Forum, an online platform to coordinate dialogue between offshore operators, stakeholders and maritime scientists, is another useful EU tool. It also includes useful tools such as the BlueInvest platform and the BlueInvest Fund, with which the EIB launched the first ever funding programme in the blue economy sector last January, amounting to €45 million distributed across the continent.
The Blue Economy market
According to the EU Blue Economy Report, in 2018 the number of people employed in the blue economy sector was close to 4.5 million, with a total turnover of €650 billion.
Pre-pandemic, sectors such as fisheries and aquaculture generated profits of €7.3 billion, up 43% from 2009 levels, while the non-biological resource extraction sector (oil, gas and minerals) continued its employment crisis, with a 60% decline.
Coastal tourism, which recorded a 45% increase in employment from 2015 to 2018, saw its activities drop by 60-80% with the arrival of COVID, similar to shipyards across Europe, hit by a 62% drop in orders. The only unscathed survivor is the renewable energy sector, with offshore wind power in particular showing strong growth in recent years.
The advent of digitalisation and technological innovation is also radically transforming the maritime sector in all its aspects: from land monitoring to breeding, from scientific research to robotics. The latter is expected to double its market value by 2025.
Maritime trade was also one of the largest victims of the pandemic, a crucial market where 90% of the world’s goods now move (Ispi data). The problems had already started in 2017 with the tariff wars between China and the US, and later Europe, with post-Brexit uncertainties attached, so much so that a global trade loss of over $10 billion was recorded in the following two years (Global Trade Alert). With the pandemic, global maritime trade at the end of 2020 was down 4.1% and sea containers fell by 1.9%.
In 2018, the number of people employed in the blue economy sector was nearly 4.5 million.
Despite this, the world merchant fleet will increase by 2.9%, with China, Japan and Greece still leading the way as cargo-owning countries. The 2021 recovery speaks of a 4.8% increase for a total of almost 12.1 billion tonnes of cargo, just above 2019 levels (UNCTAD data – United Nations Conference on Trade and Development).
In Italy, the COVID-19 tallied a heavy loss of economic contribution from cruise tourism at the end of 2020, which amounted to €1 billion. At the end of the year, the number of passengers handled in national ports was around 800,000, 93.5% less than in 2019 (and the lowest since 1993).
Nevertheless, there is optimism for the future, so much so that the forecast for new investments in the three-year period 2021-2023 are estimated at €500 million. COVID-19 helped prove that maritime transport is the most economical and environmentally friendly mode of trade at global level and is set to play a key role in future economic recovery by becoming increasingly green.
Over the decade 2008-2018, the sector’s CO2 emissions fell by almost 20% and by 1 January 2020, the sulphur content of marine fuel was reduced sevenfold globally, from 3.5% to 0.5%.
Maritime transport, which has never stopped, today ensures the supplies necessary for survival, from food, energy and raw materials to medical supplies. This is particularly true for Italy, a country poor in raw materials and a major exporter of manufactured goods.