The world’s oceans and coastlines play a crucial role in regulating the planet’s climate. Yet, the ecosystems responsible for this vital function are vanishing at an alarming rate. Fortunately, efforts to conserve and rejuvenate coastal habitats are not only preserving the environment but also improving the well-being of local communities. In this context, understanding blue carbon and its potential benefits for coastline communities is essential.
What is Blue Carbon?
Since 1850, the world’s oceans and coastlines have absorbed approximately 40% of the carbon dioxide that humans have emitted. The term blue carbon refers to carbon that ocean and coastal ecosystems store and sequester. These ecosystems extract carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it as plant matter, which eventually breaks down and becomes locked away in the mud and sediments below.
Although most carbon storage solutions and schemes have focused on terrestrial forests, coastal ecosystems actually have a greater carbon storage potential than terrestrial ones. Incredibly, coastal ecosystems can sequester up to five times more carbon than terrestrial forests per hectare. The majority of this blue carbon is in coastal mangroves, seagrass beds and salt marshes. These three habitats have also received the most scientific attention out of all ocean-cased carbon storage and many consider them proven carbon stocks and sinks.
The concept of blue carbon storage is still in its infancy compared to the well-developed terrestrial carbon storage programs and carbon credit schemes. This is because calculating the amount of carbon stored by coastal and marine ecosystems is extremely complex. Despite this, blue carbon is steadily emerging as a facet of global climate management and local community resilience.
How Can Blue Carbon Benefit Coastal Communities?
Developing countries already benefit from the financial mechanisms set up around terrestrial carbon storage. For example, the United Nations (U.N.) has created the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program under which developing countries receive compensation for protecting the carbon sequestration functions of their forests.
No similar program yet exists for blue carbon. However, it is already a feature of voluntary carbon markets (VCMs), where private companies purchase carbon credits to offset their emissions. One carbon credit is the equivalent of the removal of one metric ton of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The carbon credits that they buy originate from large and small carbon storage initiatives, and this is where the benefit to local communities emerges.
Blue carbon protection and restoration initiatives offer the potential for small, locally managed and self-sustaining conservation projects in the coastal communities of developing countries. These projects hold a wealth of benefits for the communities not only in the funds received from selling carbon credits but in the many co-benefits to the community and the environment. Mangroves can act as carbon sinks and protection from tsunamis, natural water filtration systems and nursery habitats for fish species and other marine life.
The Mikoko Pamoja Project in Kenya
The Mikoko Pamoja Project, Swahili for ‘mangroves together’ was one of the first blue carbon projects in the world. The project originated in 2012 with the aim of reforesting mangroves in Gazi Bay, Kenya, to protect local villages from coastal erosion, fish population decline and the effects of changing weather patterns. As the first community-based blue carbon project to sell carbon credits from mangrove conservation and restoration, it was a huge success. More than 117 hectares of mangroves were reforested. The money earned from carbon credits went into the community of 5,400 residents in the form of education, health and water sanitation projects.
The Delta Blue Carbon Project in Pakistan
The Delta Blue Carbon Project, based in Sindh, Pakistan, is the world’s largest mangrove restoration project. The aim is to protect and restore 350,000 hectares of mangrove and intertidal areas, which should generate 128 million carbon credits over the project’s 60-year lifetime. These carbon credits could go toward benefitting more than 42,000 people in local communities, and the project has already created 21,000 jobs. A recent auction resulted in the sale of 250,000 of these high-quality, nature-based blue carbon credits, each sold at a price of $27.80 per tonne.
The Vida Manglar Mangrove Project in Colombia
A more recent blue carbon initiative has roots in the mangrove forests of Cispata, Colombia. The 110,000-hectare mangrove forest in Cispata is the first mangrove system to have had its carbon-sequestration power fully calculated. This includes measurements for its roots, trunks, leaves and the carbon stored in the sediment. Tech giant Apple partly funded the carbon sequestration calculations. All of Vida Manglar’s available carbon credits have been sold and 92% of these funds are going back into the conservation of the mangroves.
Most blue carbon projects to date have been centered around mangrove ecosystems. This is because they are the easiest blue carbon ecosystem to access and create accurate carbon sequestration estimates for. However, ongoing work continues to create a scientific basis for using other types of ocean-based carbon storage such as seagrass and kelp to generate carbon credits. This expansion will enable the opportunities and benefits of various projects to reach countries beyond those with mangrove habitats. Additionally, considering the current higher demand for blue carbon credits compared to supply, more projects are expected to emerge. These initiatives, like the ones mentioned, offer a nature-based solution for promoting sustainable development in coastal and ocean communities.
– Amy McAlpine