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Protecting a vanishing climate solution

Coastal marine ecosystems remove excess greenhouse gas from the atmosphere -- and much more, scholars explain.  

Mangrove trees can store about 10 times more carbon than mature tropical forests. Credit: Damocean / iStock

An overlooked climate solution is disappearing, fast. Sea level rise, extreme weather events, and human activities, such as dredging and pollution, are devastating coastal marine ecosystems, eradicating their outsized ability to  absorb and store the greenhouse gasses fueling climate change.

Mangrove forests, which thrive in warm shallow waters, can store about 10 times more carbon than mature tropical forests can, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Mangroves are just one example of a coastal ecosystem with an unrivaled potential to sequester carbon dioxide while providing other valuable ecosystem services, such as storm protection, water filtration, and marine habitat. Similarly, other “blue carbon ecosystems,” like seagrasses and salt marshes, share mangroves’ functions as well as their threats. 

As we reflect on nature-based solutions this Earth Day, Josheena Naggea, the André Hoffmann Ocean Innovation Fellow at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, and Jade Delevaux, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Natural Capital Project, discuss their work on blue carbon ecosystems and efforts to save them.

How can we capture blue carbon’s value? Why is it important that we do? 

Delevaux: Capturing the value of blue carbon ecosystems can ensure decision-makers have the information they need when developing climate and environment plans. For example, to inform Belize on its climate commitments under the Paris Agreement, we co-created an analysis to design blue carbon strategies and assessed their co-benefits (fisheries, coastal protection, and tourism). Our analysis identified patches of mangroves where investment in restoration efforts could both bolster local benefits to Belizean communities while also promoting blue carbon sequestration to meet Belize’s climate goals. 

Decision-makers worldwide interested in balancing the economic and ecological benefits of blue carbon ecosystems can utilize our approach, which includes the Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs toolbox (InVEST). This free, open-access software, developed by the Natural Capital Project, maps and values nature’s goods and services that sustain human life.    

What kinds of policy changes could foster more resilient blue carbon ecosystems?

Delevaux: When developing policies and spatial planning, it’s critical to incorporate knowledge about where blue carbon ecosystems are located, the suite of benefits and values that they provide to people, and who benefits from them. There is growing interest in blue carbon finance and designing innovative finance mechanisms by governments, financial institutions, and other public and private entities to invest in securing those carbon stocks, to mitigate climate change and the benefits they provide to people locally. 

Naggea: Investments in blue carbon ecosystems in addition to political commitment can support more applied research and inclusion of climate-vulnerable communities in decision-making. We cannot think of coastal resilience without a strong environmental justice agenda that actively engages young people, women, grassroots organizations, and vulnerable communities.

What can be done to save blue carbon ecosystems? 

Naggea: We need to better appreciate the range of ecosystem services that blue carbon ecosystems provide. For example, through the Hoffmann Fellowship, I am partnering with Blue Foods Action Lab led by the Center for Ocean Solution and Stanford Law School to focus on the blue foods-blue carbon nexus.

In my home country, Mauritius, one of its worst ecological disasters, the Wakashio oil spill, damaged coastal mangrove ecosystems. It led to the conception of the SOS Mangrove programme by the NGO Reef Conservation to incorporate a citizen science approach in restoration. This helps to protect mangrove ecosystems, taking into consideration the range of benefits they bring to local communities.

Delevaux: By explicitly valuing the multiple benefits that blue carbon ecosystems provide to people locally and globally, it can help attract investments into blue carbon projects that protect, restore, or sustainably manage these ecosystems. However, it is often expensive to monitor, report, and verify these projects because of their remote locations. We need to develop cost-effective approaches to track changes regarding blue carbon ecosystems’ distribution, their existing and potential carbon abatement, and other co-benefits. 

There are many possibilities to save blue carbon ecosystems but embedding nature-based solutions into the management of coastal and marine systems has triple wins for people, the planet, and the economy. 

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