"Blue Carbon" – Buried Treasure for Climate and Communities


Blue Carbon Initiative launches at COP16 to study mitigation potential of coastal marine systems

Cancun, Mexico – Carbon sinks along the world's coast lines, including mangroves, seagrasses, and tidal salt marshes, store massive quantities of carbon for centuries at a time, and could provide an immediate and cost-effective tool to counter the impacts of climate change, said Conservation International this week at a presentation on Blue Carbon in Cancun.

The event, "Blue Carbon: Valuing CO2 Mitigation by Coastal Marine Systems", hosted by Conservation International (CI) in partnership with the International Union of Conservation Scientists (IUCN), posed the provocative question: are we missing major sinks and sources of carbon along our coasts?

According to scientists presenting their research, the answer is a resounding yes.

Dubbed "blue carbon" for their ability to sequester and store huge amounts of carbon, coastal marine ecosystems show great climate mitigation potential, if valued and managed properly. According to scientists at the event, total carbon deposits per square kilometer in these coastal systems can be up to five times the carbon stored in tropical forests, resulting from their ability to sequester carbon at rates up to 50 times those of tropical forests.

"What we've seen is that that these three main systems – mangroves, seagrasses, and salt marshes – are phenomenally efficient at storing carbon below ground in the sediment for centuries at a time," said Dr. Emily Pidgeon, the Marine Climate Change Program Director for Conservation International. "So it seems natural to us that oceans should be part of the climate change solution. It's been a bit puzzling to me as to why they haven't so far."

According to scientific analysis, coastal systems globally are being lost at an alarming rate, with approximately two percent removed or degraded each year, which is four times the estimates of annual tropical forest loss.

Other key findings reported about coastal marine system degradation at the presentation were:

  • 29 percent of the world's seagrasses have been lost or degraded
  • 35 percent of the world's mangroves have been lost or degraded
  • 35,000 km2 of mangroves were removed globally between 1980 and 2005

"The loss of mangroves is like a one-two punch to our planet: first, it results in the rapid emission of carbon stores that in many cases have built up over centuries and the lost opportunity of future carbon sequestration from these areas, and second, it destroys habitats that are critical for fisheries around the world," said Pidgeon.

Also announced at the presentation was the launch of a new international consortium of scientists led by Conservation International called the Blue Carbon Initiative, whose members include CI, IUCN, the World Conservation Monitoring Center of the United Nations Environment Programme (WCMC-UNEP), the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (UNESCO), and Restoring America's Estuaries.

"We have come together to study the mitigation possibilities and economic value of coastal marine ecosystems because they potentially give us one of the few low-cost options for actually removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, right now," said Pidgeon.

Over the next two to four years, the Blue Carbon Initiative aims to advise and develop:

  • coastal management practices that conserve carbon stores
  • local to national policies that emphasize the importance of coastal systems for climate change mitigation
  • incentive mechanisms and carbon payment schemes that value the carbon stored and sequestered by coastal systems,
  • a network of demonstration projects, potentially in the coastal systems of Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean, and
  • communication and capacity-building tools for coastal carbon management and incentives.

"It's important that the international community starts to recognize the potential value of these coastal ecosystems systems, and provide positive incentives for their conservation and restoration," said CI's International Climate Policy Director, Rebecca Chacko from UNFCCC talks in Cancun. "Once we understand the role these ecosystems play in climate mitigation, we may even be able to develop an international mechanism that can further help to protect and restore them."

An official side event of the 16th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the presentation also reported for the first time select highlights from a summary World Bank report on coastal carbon which is due for release early next year.

"The science is available, but up until now there really hasn't been a coordinated activity to pull it all together and develop policy," said report author Dr. Stephen Crooks, Climate Change Consultant for Restoring America's Estuaries. "Our message is this: conservation is a high priority if you want to keep centuries of carbon in the ground – and not released into the air."


Notes for Editors:

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Conservation International (CI) - Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, our global biodiversity for the well-being of humanity. With headquarters in Washington, DC, CI works in more than 40 countries on four continents. For more information about CI's policy positions for COP16, and science around climate change, please visit our www.conservation.org