Coastal ecosystems — including mangroves, seagrasses and tidal marshes — are some of the most valuable ecosystems on Earth, offering innumerable benefits to the climate, people and nature.
Coastal wetlands sequester and store vast amounts of what is known as “blue carbon.” In fact, in a single square mile, mangroves hold as much carbon as the annual emissions of 90,000 cars. However, when these ecosystems are degraded or destroyed large amounts of blue carbon are released into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.
Mangrove forests and other blue carbon ecosystems protect hundreds of millions of people worldwide by providing natural buffers against sea-level rise, storm surges and erosion. They play a critical role in improving and maintaining water quality and provide habitats for fish, which are essential to the food security and incomes of millions.
Blue carbon ecosystems, encompassing mangroves, seagrass beds, and salt marshes, are indispensable in preserving biodiversity, offering vital habitats for a myriad of species, including fish such as snook and red drum, crustaceans like blue crabs, nesting grounds for sea turtles, and migratory stopovers for waterfowl like herons and egrets.
But blue carbon ecosystems are at risk:
How we protect blue carbon
For over 15 years, Conservation International has been at the forefront of researching, protecting and conserving blue carbon ecosystems. Together with our partners, we are developing the strategies and tools needed to protect and fully-value coastal ecosystems — and equipping governments to develop policies that protect blue carbon ecosystems and promote their potential for supporting climate change adaptation and resilience.
We believe partnerships — big and small, public and private — are essential to the growth and success of blue carbon as a climate mitigation and adaptation tool. Conservation International leads and engages with a robust, multi-disciplinary network of partners through the following initiatives:
The Blue Carbon Initiative — This initiative brings together governments, research institutions and non-governmental organizations from around the world to advance the management approaches, financial incentives and policy mechanisms needed to ensure the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of blue carbon ecosystems as tools for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Learn more.
The Global Mangrove Alliance — An initiative to halt loss, restore half of recent loss and double protection of mangroves globally by 2030. Since its launch in 2018, the Global Mangrove Alliance has worked to implement a comprehensive and coordinated approach to mangrove conservation and restoration at an unparalleled scale. Learn more.
The International Partnership for Blue Carbon — A 54-member strong network supporting countries in protecting their blue carbon ecosystems through learning and knowledge-sharing. The partnership provides a forum for governments, non-governmental organizations, intergovernmental organizations and research institutions to connect, share and collaborate to build solutions, take actions, and benefit from the experience and expertise of the global blue carbon community. Learn more.
The Blue Carbon Buyers Alliance and Blue Carbon Suppliers Alliance — These groups coordinate buyers and suppliers committed to funding or purchasing credits from high-quality blue carbon projects, and assist capital providers in understanding where their support would be most impactful. Learn more.
Knowledge and tool building
Conservation International and our partners are building a robust, scientific basis for effective blue carbon policy, financing and management. We work with global experts to develop and synthesize knowledge for standards and tools needed to realize on-the-ground impact.
- In partnership with the government of Singapore and others, Conservation International launched the International Blue Carbon Institute, which focuses on developing global blue carbon knowledge and building the capacity to scale blue carbon projects. The institute plays a vital role in effectively translating cutting-edge science into practical tools and methodologies that are harnessing the potential of blue carbon for climate action.
- Conservation International coordinates the International Blue Carbon Scientific Working Group, an expert group that is advancing essential science for blue carbon. In 2014, the working group developed the Blue Carbon Field Manual, which provides standardized recommendations for carbon measurements and analysis and is translated into Spanish and Mandarin. The working group also co-founded the Coastal Carbon Research Coordination Network to share knowledge on ecosystem processes and carbon cycling in coastal wetlands globally.
Creating innovative funding mechanisms
In close partnership with local communities and governments, Conservation International implements blue carbon projects and financing approaches that are tailored to achieve long-lasting benefits for climate, people and nature.
- At the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Conservation International and a global coalition of ocean leaders launched the High-Quality Blue Carbon Principles and Guidance. Informed by our experience in pioneering global high-quality blue carbon credits, this first-of-its-kind resource is designed to guide the development and purchasing of high-quality blue carbon projects and credits.
- In 2018, Conservation International and partners launched a blue carbon crediting project on Colombia’s Caribbean coast that fully measures and monetizes the carbon stored by a 11,000-hectare (27,000-acre) mangrove forest. The carbon stores were fully certified in 2021 using the Climate, Community & Biodiversity Standards developed by Verra. The vast majority of revenues — 92 percent — generated from the sale of blue carbon credits is invested in Cispatá Bay’s conservation management plan to protect the mangroves and support the sustainable livelihoods of the 12,000 people who live near the project site. Critically, Vida Manglar provided proof of concept to bring blue carbon markets to scale, with Colombia’s government seeking to replicate this project elsewhere and six other countries exploring similar projects.
Accelerating global policy action for blue carbon
Conservation International works at all levels of government to help create and strengthen policies needed for the effective, long-term conservation and restoration of coastal blue carbon ecosystems.
- Countries all around the world are committed to combating climate change and its impacts. Increasingly, the conservation and restoration of coastal blue carbon ecosystems is being recognized as a high-impact mechanism for countries to reach their
individual and collective climate mitigation and adaptation goals.
Approximately 151 countries contain at least one blue carbon ecosystem, and roughly one-third of all countries contain all three — mangroves, seagrasses and tidal marshes. However, less than half of these countries have integrated blue carbon ecosystems in their climate mitigation commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement, leaving significant untapped potential.
- The 195 signatories of the Paris Agreement are required to submit plans for reducing emissions through a mechanism called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). As each country’s NDCs are updated every five years, it is crucial that governments are equipped with all the newest, science-backed information necessary to increase the ambition of their plans. Conservation International and our partners published Guidelines for Blue Carbon and Nationally Determined Contributions to advise countries on the ways coastal blue carbon ecosystems can contribute to achieving their national climate adaptation and mitigation goals. We have worked with the governments of Colombia, Costa Rica, Kenya, Liberia and Madagascar to include blue carbon commitments in their NDCs — and many other countries are following their example.
- Conservation International and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) developed an International Policy Framework for Blue Carbon Ecosystems, which details how blue carbon ecosystem conservation and restoration can be accelerated and strengthened by aligning international polices across the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Sustainable Development Goals and other UN-level goals. The framework seeks to raise countries’ ambitions for protecting their blue carbon ecosystems, accelerate project implementation and align on how collective impacts are measured. We also work with our partners to maintain a Blue Carbon Policy Hub that contains framework updates and a library of policy guidance documents.
On the ground
Blogs about 'blue carbon'
From mountains to mangroves: One expert's journey into marine conservation
Growing up in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Jill Hamilton always felt connected to nature — and knew she would pursue a career to protect it. But time spent on the coast with family drew her from the mountains to the ocean.
Now at Conservation International, she works at the intersection of policy and ocean science — helping governments and decision-makers protect marine and coastal ecosystems. Conservation News spoke with Hamilton about how she transformed a passion for the outdoors into a career in international policy — and her advice for others seeking to do the same.
What drew you to the ocean?
Jill Hamilton fly fishing in Colorado.
Jill Hamilton: While I grew up near the mountains, I spent a lot of time with my extended family, who live on the California and Rhode Island coasts. I have always felt that a love for the ocean is in my blood. For generations, many of my relatives — including my grandfather and uncles — worked as fishermen, sailors and in the Coast Guard.
But I really started to think about a career in ocean conservation in college, when I took a course that required me to get scuba certified. I’ll never forget the first time I went diving in the ocean. My class traveled to Cozumel, Mexico, which is known for its beautiful underwater arches and tunnels, not to mention marine life. We saw angelfish, spotted eagle rays and small eels in beds of seagrass. When you’re 40 feet under water and swimming above a coral reef, it feels like you’re flying — there’s no other way to describe that sensation.
On future research trips, I met people working to protect coral reefs. They did underwater surveys of the reefs, then used the findings to develop management plans and conservation policies. I was intrigued by this work and wanted to learn more.
How did that experience lead you to international policy?
JH: In graduate school, I had the opportunity to go to Cuba and Mexico for meetings about environmental collaboration in the Gulf of Mexico. Ocean currents connect marine life off the coasts of the United States, Mexico and Cuba. For example, a grouper born in Cuba’s reefs might mature in the waters of Texas or Florida; sea turtles migrate within the entire region and whale sharks can be found in many corners of the Gulf. This dynamic ecosystem supports the three countries’ economies and communities. And despite their political differences, countries have worked together to rise above the challenges. Seeing this made me feel hopeful — I knew I wanted to be part of making that happen.
Now, in my work at Conservation International, I advise governments and other global decision-makers, like the United Nations climate change secretariat, on how mangrove and seagrass conservation and restoration can help address the impacts of climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions are warming and acidifying the ocean, which is harming marine life and causing increasingly intense storms. Given the scale of the threats, countries, the private sector and others all need to work together on solutions.
How does your work address these threats?
Jill Hamilton in Fiji.
JH: My work is mainly focused on what we call blue carbon ecosystems, which include mangroves, seagrasses and tidal marshes that absorb and store huge quantities of carbon. Along with cutting fossil fuel emissions, conserving and restoring these ecosystems is one of the best ways to fight climate change. Plus, they offer protection from storms and provide numerous benefits for local communities. But they need protection — more than a third of the world’s mangrove forests have been destroyed since 1980.
How can your work address these challenges?
JH: Whether we’re working with partners or governments in Fiji, Indonesia or Costa Rica, their concerns and challenges are often quite similar — which also means there are shared solutions. An important part of my job is helping countries identify these similarities and find ways to incorporate proven solutions into their own plans to curb climate change.
In just a few weeks, countries will meet for the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference to negotiate responses to the climate crisis. To help countries shape realistic and ambitious climate goals for their coastal ecosystems, Conservation International recently published a resource guide that identifies ways to protect mangroves and other coastal blue carbon ecosystems — and make them part of countries’ climate change commitments. Ensuring these ecosystems are part of a broader plan helps countries secure funding and conserve and restore these important places long into the future.
For example, we’re currently working with the government of Indonesia to incorporate blue carbon ecosystems into their national climate and biodiversity goals to protect them from threats like aquaculture and agriculture. Conserving and restoring Indonesia’s mangroves — which account for one-fifth of the world’s total — is incredibly important for protecting coastal communities and curbing climate change. In addition to providing protection from intensifying storms and rising seas, Indonesia’s mangroves store 3.1 billion tons of carbon — that’s equivalent to the annual emissions of 2.5 billion cars.
Ultimately, my role sits at the intersection of science and policy. We have proven solutions to restore and conserve blue carbon ecosystems. Now we need to work with governments and other partners to put the policies and financing strategies in place so we can scale up these solutions and have global impact.
What message do you have for others who would like to pursue a career in conservation?
JH: Follow what excites you. My career has taken me from renewable energy to managing migratory tuna stocks to the United States Senate, where I helped draft a bill on blue carbon. There are many ways to contribute to conservation, it can take time to find your niche. My passion for the ocean and protecting nature has guided me along the way, and each of these experiences continue to influence my work today.
Resources & publications
- High-Quality Blue Carbon Principles and Guidance (PDF)
- International Policy Framework for Blue Carbon Ecosystems
- Blue Carbon Policy Hub
- Guidelines for Blue Carbon and Nationally Determined Contributions
- Blue carbon pathways for climate mitigation: Known, emerging, and unlikely (ScienceDirect)
- Carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation using macroalgae: a state of knowledge review (Biological Reviews)
- The Ocean as a Solution to Climate Change: Updated Opportunities for Action (Ocean Panel)
- Blue Carbon Handbook — A guide to managing blue carbon ecosystems as a nature-based solution for supporting sustainable development. (Ocean Panel)