“Blue carbon” is a term for the carbon that is sequestered and stored naturally by marine and coastal wetland ecosystems — mangroves, seagrasses and tidal marshes. These coastal wetlands are gaining more and more recognition as important and efficient carbon sinks, based on their ability to sequester large amounts of carbon not just in the plants themselves, but also in their soils, where it can remain for hundreds to thousands of years. However, when these ecosystems are destroyed or degraded, much of the carbon stored in the soils is released back into the atmosphere and ocean, shifting these ecosystems from acting as net sinks to sources of carbon emissions. This is important because the release of carbon into the atmosphere is a major driver of climate change, and “blue carbon” ecosystems hold a LOT of carbon — a given area of mangrove forest, for example, can store up to 10 times as much carbon as the same area of tropical forest. Thus, the conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of these ecosystems are essential for combating climate change as well as maintaining the many additional ecosystem services they provide (e.g., fisheries, water quality, coastal protection) that contribute to climate adaptation and improved human well-being.
As the importance of coastal wetlands for climate mitigation is increasingly recognized, there has been an ongoing effort to change the way people value wetlands and to include wetlands into national climate mitigation strategies. At the IUCN World Conservation Congress, held in Hawaii in August 2016, over 10,000 conservation minded scientists, policy makers, funders, and community leaders gathered to discuss our “Planet at the Crossroads.” Blue carbon was a recurring theme at several events and panels, reflecting the enormous progress in the science, policy and practical application of blue carbon in marine conservation in recent years. The Hawai’i Congress provided a unique opportunity to share this rich learning through a global conversation helping accelerate its transition from theory and research to practical reality.
One workshop entitled “Using blue carbon to foster conservation and restoration of coastal ecosystems,” led by the Blue Carbon Initiative (coordinating members: IUCN, IOC-UNESCO and Conservation International), highlighted how the concept of blue carbon can be used to limit the loss of coastal ecosystems and boost their recovery via climate policies and finance. Speakers demonstrated the pros and cons of various policy and funding mechanisms within a blue carbon context, including REDD+, carbon offset projects or the implementation of a coastal carbon through Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) and National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs), as well as Payment for Ecosystem Service incentives. The goal was to demonstrate the variety of ways in which blue carbon can be used to enhance climate mitigation actions that are already being used by nations across the globe.
The two-hour workshop showcased several national case studies occurring across habitats, geographies and policy contexts. Panelists and topics included the use of community-based incentives to protect coastal mangroves, such as Conservation International’s successful Socio Manglar (Mangrove Partners) program in Ecuador which aims to protect coastal mangrove forests through direct economic incentives, and Blue Ventures’ efforts catalyzing community-led mangrove conservation and restoration in Madagascar to create a blue carbon finance scheme. Conservation International also highlighted how they are using blue carbon as a way to support sustainable economic development and conservation in West Papua, Indonesia, and The Nature Conservancy spoke about their efforts building local capacity to identify and implement viable management options for increasing mangrove resilience and carbon accounting in Micronesia. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shared how the U.S. is working to incorporate coastal wetlands into the U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory for the UNFCCC, the first country to do so, and Australia’s Department of the Environment and Energy spoke of the new International Partnership for Blue Carbon, an international initiative committed to growing and strengthening conservation efforts of the world’s mangroves, tidal marshes and sea grasses – both for their value in climate change adaptation and mitigation and their crucial ecosystem services role. And finally, IUCN spoke about the need to include a regional level approach and develop blue carbon related policy efforts and strategies which address and take into account regional MPA challenges or existing regional Conventions. Break-out groups following these panelist presentations reflected participants’ growing interest in expanding or scaling up many of these successful community-based projects, as well as a growing recognition of the importance of incorporating blue carbon considerations into broader regional and global frameworks and partnerships.
We hope that through this workshop and the continuing efforts of the Blue Carbon Initiative we are helping to demonstrate that the scientific evidence supporting the role of mangroves, tidal marshes, and seagrasses as long-term carbon sinks is well-established, we are ready to explore meaningful implementation at scale, and the potential of blue carbon ecosystems to shift away from being a carbon sink to a source through anthropogenic degradation further supports the need for their conservation and restoration. It is clear that we need an alternative path to mitigate climate change and improve the lives of billions of people around the globe, and we believe that starts by putting nature at the heart of our decisions. This is our collective challenge as we move into the future.
Jennifer Howard is the Director of Marine Climate Change at Conservation International. Her work focuses on establishing mechanisms to conserve coastal and marine ecosystems and protecting vulnerable coastal communities from the threats of climate change. Follow Conservation International on Twitter @ConservationOrg.
Erin Eastwood is a John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellow in NOAA’s Climate Program Office. Her work focuses on coastal blue carbon and climate mitigation strategies, and she helps to foster NOAA’s international climate-related partnerships.