Blue carbon climate mitigation potential still largely ignored

The climate mitigation potential of coastal carbon-rich ecosystems such as mangroves, saltmarshes and seagrasses – often referred to as coastal ‘blue carbon ecosystems’ – is often overlooked in national climate change policies, according to an article published in the journal Aquatic Conservation by IUCN experts.

Mangroves in Térraba Sierpe, Costa Rica Photo: IUCN / Enrique Lahmann

Mangroves in Térraba Sierpe, Costa Rica

Blue carbon ecosystems are unique in that they sequester and store carbon dioxide (CO2) at much higher rates per unit area than terrestrial forests – up to six times more than undisturbed tropical rainforests. This means that when these ecosystems are degraded, lost or converted as a result of insufficient conservation measures, massive amounts of CO2 – an estimated 0.15-1.02 billion tons every year – are released into the atmosphere or ocean, accounting for up to 19% of carbon emissions from global deforestation.

"Though blue carbon is not yet fully integrated in all aspects of national and local policy making, there are some best practices that can improve the management of blue carbon ecosystems and ensure their inclusion in relevant policy making,” says Dorothée Herr, Manager of IUCN’s Oceans and Climate Change programme and co-author of the article.

Authors identify several best practices for improved blue carbon management, including setting up community-based carbon projects, where ecosystems are conserved in collaboration with local communities and carbon credits are sold to generate revenues for the communities and sustain the projects. Other practices include encouraging cash-for-management schemes, where coastal communities get direct cash payments for managing blue carbon ecosystem areas, and incorporating blue carbon ecosystems in international mechanisms already working on carbon such as REDD+.

The article examines the blue carbon policies of five countries – Ecuador, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mozambique and the United Arab Emirates, drawing from National Blue Carbon Policy Assessments conducted in these countries for the UN Environment/GEF Blue Forests Project, to identify blue carbon policy trends and highlight best practices which can be scaled up to protect coastal blue carbon ecosystems. It reveals pollution and coastal infrastructure projects as the main causes of ecosystem degradation. Management of these ecosystems also suffer from a lack of coordination in national programmes, lack of law enforcement, financial constraints, and unclear or misguided government mandates, especially where land tenure claims are disputed.

“Conserving blue carbon ecosystems goes far beyond storing carbon,” says Dan Laffoley, Marine Vice Chair of the World Commission on Protected Areas and co-author of the article. “These ecosystems are increasingly recognised for their multiple benefits, including protection against floods, storms and other disasters and providing spawning grounds for commercial fish. What we’ve shown in our paper is how governments and communities can use the potential of coastal blue carbon ecosystems to transform their economies and support their livelihoods.”

The article notes that improved mapping of these ecosystems is an essential first step to allow for a more accurate understanding of the scale of these ecosystems, and where they can fit into existing climate change mitigation plans. Current unreliable data means that these ecosystems are often left out of carbon accounting. There also needs to be cross-sectoral collaboration, from various government departments, to fully understand the threats facing these ecosystems and strengthen their protection.

The paper, ‘Pathways for implementation of blue carbon initiatives’, can be accessed here.

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