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Higher Tides, Greater Risks, New Rewards: The Business Case for Caring About the Coast

By Dr. Alexander Dale, Senior Officer for Sustainability at MIT Solve

Why should companies care about coasts affected by climate change? Whether through rising seas, stronger storms, new markets, or risks to our own homes, every business is connected to the coast. As a result, every sustainability leader should monitor ongoing trends, risks, and opportunities from climate change and its impact on the world’s oceans and coasts.

A few key statistics:

  • Over a third of the world’s population lives near a coast – the customers and workers that make the global economy run.
  • Of that global economy, 90% of international trade travels by sea and passes through ports, infrastructure on the front lines of rising seas.
  • The protection gap between insurance policies and potential damage is estimated at $180 billion and rising.

One immediate response might be to leave – to move corporate locations inland where they’re more protected. The benefits of our globalized world, however, can also mean more supply chains vulnerable to problems at unexpected specific locations, as exemplified by the loss of hospital IV bags across the US in the wake of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The benefits of a global economy requires different approaches for a more complete solution.

To support coastal communities, here at MIT’s Solve initiative, we’ve launched a Coastal Communities Challenge to identify impactful solutions from around the world. The Challenge focuses on four specific aspects: sustaining economic activity, providing cost-effective infrastructure, rebuilding ecosystems, and helping communities use data to make complex decisions.

Three of these elements represent key emerging trends business leaders should follow.

What We Can’t Prevent: Cost-effective Infrastructure

Even with the world’s commitment to the Paris Agreement, some amount of sea level rise and more frequent strong storms are inevitable, but they could become much worse depending on our efforts in the next decade.

Companies should plan with the year 2050 in mind. Business leaders must understand whether their operations or supply chains are at risk from higher tides and storm surge, and they should weigh investments for their own property, or in partnership with the cities in which they work, accordingly.

Most infrastructure projects to date have been large municipal efforts, such as London’s Thames barrier. There is a clear need for lower-cost solutions for dealing with excess water – through both cheap and temporary barriers and long-term, low-maintenance options for whole communities.

What We Can Save: Preserved and Restored Ecosystems

Tourism and hospitality is big business (and a personal pleasure for many of us), but put bluntly, concrete barriers make for terrible ocean views. By restoring our ecosystem, we can avoid the need for these types of barriers. In addition to preserving ocean views, ecosystems are important for tourist engagement. Many destinations depend on their ability to provide visitors with exciting activities and eye-catching sights, like coral reefs, mangroves, and fishing stocks. These natural wonders rely on thriving ecosystems, and restoring them makes business sense when they keep tourists coming.

Careful conservation and “green” projects are increasingly seen as more than just social responsibility. Instead, they are strong alternatives to “grey” infrastructure, whether in Bali or Brooklyn. Ecosystem projects also represent a way to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and the ocean, maintain clean waterways, and support stronger fish stocks and community economies – triple bottom line benefits.

Where We Can Expand: A Global Blue Economy

Finally, the changing ocean highlights the need to decrease environmental impacts or adapt to new conditions, but it also offers new business possibilities, with two areas seeing a boom in innovative approaches.

Aquaculture has a long history – often an environmentally destructive one – but produces 50% of our seafood, and more responsible seafood farming could be a key way to feed a growing and protein-hungry world. New methods for deepwater farms, pest management, and process automation suggest lower impacts and higher yields.

One of the limits of wind energy is that good onshore wind is often far from people, requiring contentious transmission lines. But between the strength and reliability of offshore wind, enormous new turbines, and investments in infrastructure, offshore wind is an increasingly competitive option. Federal and state governments in the US and elsewhere are following European colleagues and offering new leases for development.

Both aquaculture and offshore wind benefit from a new wave of innovation in areas like automation or maintenance, and they’re a natural transition for marine industries with long experience building and maintaining operations at sea. They also represent two of an increasingly broad set of ocean-based business ideas connected to a more sustainable world.

A Call to Action

Regardless of your distance from the sea, these broad trends will affect your businesses. What can you do to limit this impact? From shifting real estate plans, to setting more ambitious mitigation or restoration goals, to pursuing new business opportunities on or around the ocean, the range of responsible actions is broad.

All of these challenges and opportunities will require innovative solutions and technologies. Solve’s role is to identify the best solutions, then pair them with a community of leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to form partnerships they need to launch, pilot, and scale their impact. We’re excited to tackle the issues of Coastal Communities under climate change, both for the business opportunities and for the 2+ billion people who are – or will be – affected by a rising, warming, acidifying ocean and stronger storms.

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Dr. Alexander Dale is the Senior Officer for Sustainability at MIT Solve, where he supports myriad people and organizations passionate about tackling food, energy, water, and climate challenges. He has an academic background in the life-cycle impacts of energy and water infrastructure, and a professional background in environmental policy, engineering education, and nonprofit management.

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