[By David Adam]
Where there’s mud, there’s copper,” goes an old adage from the north of England. Brass is slang for silver, and those who have a lot of it today are eyeing with great interest a particular type of slime. Muddy, smelly, shoe-sucking sediment full of so-called blue carbon.
The latest buzzword in climate finance, blue carbon is carbon stored in the ocean, particularly coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass beds. It takes the form of organic matter, mostly decaying plant leaves, wood, roots and dead animals, captured under sediment and stored sometimes for thousands of years.
Just as with forests and tree planting on land, markets are developing for the protection and restoration of these carbon-rich environments as a means of mitigating climate change.
“There is so much appetite for blue carbon projects,” says Peter Macreadie, environmental scientist at Deakin University, Australia. “Major companies and nations have integrated blue carbon into their reduction plans and portfolios.” Apple and Gucci are among the most prominent brands to have invested in blue carbon programs.
It’s a remarkable turnaround. For decades, environmental activists have tried and largely failed to ensure the protection of these coastal ecosystems. In addition to reducing the strength of terrestrial storms, they boost biodiversity and provide food and livelihoods.
“Swamps haven’t been sexy for a long time,” says Sebastian Thomas, who works on sustainability at Curtin University in Australia. “But over the last 10 or 15 years, communities of scientists, NGOs, activists have really pushed and said, ‘Look, this stuff matters’.”
Count blue carbon
Late last year, an international team of scientists produced the first estimates of its importance. They calculated that the three key marine habitats – seagrasses, mangroves and marshes – can together store more than 30 gigatonnes of carbon. This is about three times the amount emitted in China each year.
Graphic: Ed Harrison/China Dialogue Ocean
Adding to this capacity by restoring degraded and lost blue carbon ecosystems could absorb an additional 0.8 gigatonnes of carbon each year by 2030, the researchers estimated, or about 3% of global emissions.
What can be measured can be managed, and blue carbon is gradually being integrated into carbon accounting systems. Some countries have started including it in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement, which quantify efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
“It is not mandatory [for countries to account for blue carbon], but the guidance is there for them to do so. And the US and Australia are already doing it,” says Hilary Kennedy, a marine biogeochemist at Bangor University in the UK. Kenya is another country that accounts for blue carbon in its CDN inventory.
Under guidelines co-published by several organizations working on blue carbon, including the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and UNESCO, countries are allowed to report reductions in their carbon emissions if they agree. striving to restore blue carbon systems. “In the UK we have drained some of our marshes. So we could allow the tide to recede and that would be restoration,” Kennedy adds.
Lags take off
Projects to protect and restore blue carbon ecosystems are also among the most important carbon offsets today. In such programs, companies and individuals who want to offset their carbon pollution can pay someone else not to emit an equivalent amount or to make a change that will absorb that amount from the atmosphere in the future. .
In theory, the sale of blue carbon offset credits could channel much-needed funds to projects around the world that seek to restore coastal ecosystems, both by preventing the release of carbon into the atmosphere and by absorbing more carbon.
For example, huge tracts of former shrimp farming sites in Indonesia are now derelict. They could be converted back into productive mangroves, but that’s not a silver bullet. “You have to be pretty cheeky for the first projects to be operational. You might spend a few million dollars and then wait for many years to see the carbon build up,” says Macreadie.
A few blue carbon projects are already operational. One on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, set up with help from Conservation International and Apple Inc, to conserve and sustainably manage a coastal mangrove ecosystem, issued its first carbon credits last year. But global demand for blue carbon credits massively outstrips supply, Macreadie points out.
Like all offsets, blue carbon credit programs are criticized for being greenwashing. “You shouldn’t let anyone convince you or say this is the silver bullet to solving climate change, because it’s not. The opportunity is actually quite limited,” says Cath Lovelock, an expert in coastal plant community ecology at the University of Queensland, Australia. “And that could allow polluters to continue polluting. It’s like, ‘Look at my beautiful blue carbon project here, while I’m not doing anything about my emissions there.'”
Despite these concerns, steps are being taken to broaden the scope of blue carbon projects, and thus increase the flow of finance and carbon credits, for example by selling credits for cultivated algae. The concept has also taken off in China, whose long coastline is home to a diverse range of blue carbon ecosystems – degraded in recent decades, but now targeted for restoration. “The Chinese want to call everything blue carbon,” says Thomas. “They want to do seaweed and all kinds of things.”
On the first day of this year, China completed its first carbon sink fishing trade, in Lianjiang, Fujian Province. The “aquacultural carbon credit” of 15,000 tonnes of salt water has been verified by the Ministry of Natural Resources. The type of aquaculture involved has not been disclosed, but seaweed and shellfish farming accounts for 90% of Lianjiang’s aquaculture production. For now, China has no verification standards for carbon capture and storage when farming seaweed or shellfish, which themselves involve carbon emissions and ultimately , harvesting and consumption. Currently, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) only recognizes mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes as coastal carbon pools suitable for management and trade.
David Adam is a freelance journalist based near London.
This article appears courtesy of China Dialogue Ocean and can be found in its original form here.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.