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Bluer horizons: Putting coastal communities before carbon markets
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Blue carbon is the carbon captured and sequestered by marine ecosystems, and the credits that projects to protect and restore these environments create are in high demand. Companies are looking at the role that mangroves, seagrass and saltmarshes can play in climate resilience and adaption, as well as their own efforts to offset carbon emissions.
But how this demand is met, and the way in which projects are designed to involve communities and safeguard livelihoods, is set to influence whether the world’s transition to a greener economy is a just one.
Coastal wetlands are estimated to sequester carbon dioxide as much as 10 times faster than terrestrial forests, with some stored in the biomass above ground but the majority locked up in the soil, sediment and thick root structures under the surface. But as well as acting as carbon sinks, they provide food, protection from extreme weather events, and livelihoods for local communities. They are also incredibly biodiverse.
At this year’s World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, the role these coastal environments can play in climate change mitigation and adaption was central to several high-level events. And there was much talk about how restoring coastal ecosystems could result in a return of $11.8 billion in carbon finance by 2040.
Now, several partnerships are looking at ways to help businesses tap into blue carbon, by developing the science, the policy and the financial mechanisms that can help projects to scale.
These include organisations such as the Plan Vivo Foundation, which supports terrestrial and blue carbon projects, as well as setting standards in the voluntary carbon market. According to blue carbon coordinator Evie Ward, Vivo is working on new methodologies that take into account the fact that these coastal forests are much smaller and more fragmented than land-based ones. Plan Vivo wants to make blue carbon projects more accessible, with more technical support and more straightforward guidelines.
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There is further clarity in the High-Quality Blue Carbon Principles and Guidance, launched by Conservation International in the run-up to last year’s U.N. climate conference, COP27. It is designed to build high-quality blue carbon projects by providing a consistent and accepted framework for credit purchasers and investors, as well as project developers.
The initiative is based on five principles: safeguard nature; empower people; employ the best information and carbon-accounting principles; operate contextually and locally; and mobilise high-integrity capital.
Elsewhere, the International Partnership for Blue Carbon is looking to bring business and government together to start restoring and protecting mangroves at scale, and there is growing pressure on governments to include blue carbon in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which outline a country’s efforts to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.
Securing the future of 15 million hectares of mangroves by 2030 is the ambitious goal of Mangrove Breakthrough, an organisation that has won the support of the U.N., as well as businesses such as Salesforce. The group is also looking to raise $4 billion in long-term, sustainable investment to support the work.
It's a move that recognises that philanthropy is not enough to save coastal wetlands but with demand for blue carbon credits currently outstripping supply, the fear is that companies will accept quantity over quality and put their own offsetting needs above those of the communities that rely on the wetlands.
Ben Scheelk manages the blue resilience initiative at The Ocean Foundation, a California-based nonprofit funding ocean conservation projects in 45 countries. He says the focus of its projects is on co-benefits for communities rather than carbon.
“These habitats are vital for local communities,” he continues, and a key reason for investing in them is the protection and adaptation benefits they also bring. Aside from the providing a natural infrastructure that can resist storm surges, coastal wetlands can improve water quality by preventing algae blooms, and in urban areas stop sediment from entering water supplies. They provide habitat, too.
“Having healthy fisheries is essential for communities – not having mangroves and seagrasses robs fish of nursery grounds,” Scheelk adds.
Marine life such as sharks, manatees and sea turtles are also quick to return to healthy waters, helping to kick start eco-tourism, he says. “There is a huge habitat benefit here that way outstrips the benefits of carbon capture, but it’s something that is harder to quantify.”
Restoring these ecosystems can also bring jobs, in planting, landscape architecture and, crucially, repairing the hydrology of an area. Many expensive mangrove restoration projects fail because they don’t address why the forests disappeared in the first place, says Ward of Plan Vivo, such as upstream pollution, or changes to the local water table. So, while businesses may be keen to be seen replanting mangroves, successful projects will focus on the need to restore the conditions needed for natural regeneration first, she says.
Corporations should also be clear about the likely community benefits from a project, advises Ward. “Ownership is key,” she says. “Then you know that they (local people) are in control of what’s happening to their own resources.”
Establish where the money from the sale of credits is going, too. Sometimes, if the land is owned by the government, they will also own any credits and may not necessarily redirect money from their sale back to local communities.
The Plan Vivo model ensures that at least 60% of the income goes to the community, who then vote on how it is spent, often funding projects around healthcare, education and clean water. This means, she explains, that “once the carbon payments have dried up, there are long-term livelihood benefits associated with the project”.
Suzanne Stas, senior wetland carbon developer at Wetlands International, agrees. “It is very important that a project is accepted by communities,” she says. “They are the most important stakeholders in the landscape.”
In Guinea Bissau, West Africa, Wetlands International is working on a project with the Dutch energy provider Green Choice to restore mangroves that have been grubbed up to make way for rice fields. But, she says, “restoration mustn’t be about fencing areas off and stopping people getting a living income. (It) needs to support them and come up with solutions that can benefit both nature and people.”
Here bee-keeping, a popular income generator among the mangroves, and oyster farming have replaced the rice fields.
Some businesses, particularly those with direct links to coastal wetlands, are involved with in-setting, says Scheelk, using nature-based solutions to cut emissions in their own value chains rather than offsetting. In St Kitts, the Ocean Foundation is working with Marriot Hotels to turn sargassum, a seaweed that can engulf whole resorts, into compost.
Traditionally, the seaweed has been landfilled, where it releases carbon back into the atmosphere. But by combining it with other materials, local farmers can use it to grow organic fruit and vegetables, which they then sell back to the resort.
Ward urges companies to be wary of re-sellers too, organisations that buy credits and sell them on at a profit. “Sometimes, when there’s a middleman involved, the projects aren’t getting a fair price,” she warns.
Another way businesses can get involved is with up-front financing of projects, which at the moment is largely covered by grants and philanthropy. Now some businesses are looking to offer this in return for the credits when they’re issued, says Ward. “It is a good solution, as long as projects aren’t being taken advantage of,” she says. For instance, the price of credits is expected to rise steadily, so an upfront agreement could tie a project to a low price.
The market for blue carbon credit can be a tough one to negotiate, says Scheelk, which is why it is so important that companies have a clear idea of what they are investing in.
“Carbon credits can work, but it's critical that we approach these things with very high values and principles and we ensure that most of the benefits go back to the community, and not the investors,” he adds.
  • Tabitha Kimani

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    The blue economy has many natural solutions to climate change.

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