Blue Carbon: A new frontier for ocean conservation

September 13, 2021 by Dan Crockett, Development Director


Collectively, we might be looking at 15 per cent of [target] greenhouse gas removal by activating all of these blue carbon strategies” – Professor Carlos Duarte, Kaust University.

In June this year, immediately ahead of the G7, Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) held a one-day Blue Carbon Conference. “Blue carbon” is the carbon sequestered within marine and coastal ecosystems. Mitigating against climate change by using nature-based solutions brings with it a multitude of benefits for biodiversity, local communities and for resilience, but there are still challenges and knowledge-gaps in how to effectively bring blue carbon projects to the scale needed for effective climate mitigation. The event, which was held virtually to minimise carbon emissions, drew together some of the leading thinkers and speakers in the field of blue carbon and ocean climate change who collectively explored the role that blue carbon could play as a solution to climate change, aiming to unite the community and share evidence and ambition before COP26 in Glasgow this November. The conclusions are now published in the Blue Carbon Conference report.

BLUE’s specialist unit focused on climate change (unsurprisingly called BLUE Carbon) seeks to better understand blue carbon habitats and the benefits that they provide, using this knowledge to catalyse marine conservation and restoration interventions. In collaboration with the University of Exeter, we are looking closely at carbon sequestration and storage rates of recognised blue carbon habitats such as seagrass and saltmarsh, while also exploring the opportunities presented by kelp and marine sediments. Meanwhile, our restoration team is focused on expanding our work restoring oysters to the Solent by conducting a feasibility study to conduct integrated ecosystem restoration of blue carbon habitats. This marine rewilding corridor could bring new life and restore vital climate functions to a sadly denuded area of sea. BLUE is also actively involved in monitoring the impacts of the area in Sussex that was closed to mobile fishing earlier this year to allow the restoration of a kelp forest.

Alongside other NGOs and an advisory committee of government agencies, we are producing a definitive map of the carbon in the English north sea. As an accompanying piece of work, we are working to better understand the impacts of mobile contact bottom fishing on carbon stocks and the carbon cycle. In his opening statement for the conference, Lord (Zac) Goldsmith said: “While we know that bottom trawling has utterly devastated whole tracts of ocean floor, we do not yet know the full extent of its impacts in terms of carbon. The brilliant Enric Sala believes that trawling causes the same level of emissions as the aviation sector, and if that’s even nearly true, we need to step up our research, and fast.” The need to better understand the role of the seabed in sequestering and storing carbon, and human impact on its processes, is now a key scientific question of our time. Later this year BLUE hopes to announce a major five-year scientific programme to better understand the recovery of the seascape in carbon terms.

To confront a topic as complicated as this requires collaboration and communication between the many stakeholders involved. Based on the current rate of change and importance of blue carbon in addressing the current ecological and climate emergency a need was identified at the conference to convene a UK Blue Carbon Forum with an aim to bring together research institutions, government agencies and environmental NGOs to share evidence and ambition. We see this forum as being neutral in its hosting and management and, alongside a small group of like-minded organisations, are working to bring it to life.

Discussion about a voluntary blue carbon market occurred throughout the conference. One of the key conclusions of the day, emphasised by leading blue carbon specialist Jennifer Howard at Conservation International, was that credits delivered to the blue carbon market must be of the highest possible quality and that anything else is a huge risk. In a world where blue carbon credits are now being verified and sold, that projects create genuinely additional carbon sequestration and storage is of paramount importance, as is accounting for leakage, permanence, and resilience in the face of a changing climate. BLUE’s perspective is that a voluntary market for blue carbon must be underpinned by rigorous scientific evidence, just as it must be transparent and socially equitable.

The conference welcomed leaders from local communities involved in blue carbon projects. Lalao Aigrette of Blue Ventures emphasised the need for blue carbon projects to place community ownership and engagement at their heart. Monitoring and reporting on the impacts of blue carbon projects can help to unlock access to climate mitigation finance – providing a solid, measurable basis for investment. Ms Aigrette concluded by highlighting the importance of nature-based solutions within efforts to improve gender equality. In many areas, mangroves also provide the means for small-scale fishing without the need for vessels or expensive equipment. “As a woman from a coastal village in Madagascar, I have one closing message,” Lalao concluded. “It is imperative that negotiations at COP26… keep coastal communities in mind.

On a political level, can we wait for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process to properly recognise and protect blue carbon habitats, amid a backdrop of huge global declines in mangroves, seagrass and saltmarsh? Our UK Nationally Determined Contribution includes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change guidance for coastal wetlands, but leans on existing policy instruments to deliver proper protection of blue carbon habitats. Do these acts deliver for these habitats that offer us so much? Not yet. Current UK government targets are for our protected areas to be in favourable condition by 2043. Where is the ambition? Where are the interim targets? Justifying inaction based on lack of evidence is an easy escape route, due to the complexity of the issue, but many countries around the world (like Belize, for instance) are managing to join these dots at the rapid pace needed. The rapid application of emerging blue carbon evidence to existing policy mechanisms – better protection of these habitats and their functions – must be a priority.

BLUE would like to thank all speakers, panel hosts Elsa Palanza and James Cameron, breakout chairs and audience participants. We would also like to thank Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation for sponsoring the event and Mindfully Wired for technical delivery of the day. Our goal with this conference was to bring together a mix of stakeholders from local communities, research institutions, businesses, civil servants and politicians. We hope that the ambition of this broad community carries through to CBD COP15, UNFCCC COP26 and beyond into this all-important decade. We were delighted to host the day and hope that you enjoy reading some of the key conclusions in the report. We look forward to a bright future for blue carbon and a prominent role for the ocean in international climate and biodiversity negotiations moving forward.

Watch the conference in full on YouTube:

BLUE will hold an event at COP26 to build on many of the topics raised on the day. Please contact us if you will be in Glasgow and would like to attend.

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