This story was originally published in the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
The Caribbean coast of Colombia, rare manatee calves have been spotted in the canals and rivers of Cispatá Bay’s mangrove forests. The once-critically endangered American Crocodile is now more commonly seen. Birds and Lizards nest in the branches. Shrimps and fish use the roots to nurse their young. These mangroves cover 11,000 hectares (27,000 acre) and are a biodiversity hotspot.
But the Cispatá conservation project, a collaboration between Colombia’s Marine and Coastal Research Institute (Invemar), ConservationInternational (CI), and Apple are not only of interest to ecologists and birdwatchers. It has attracted the attention of marine scientists, researchers and corporations, as it is among the first to measure and sell a new type of credit to fund conservation: “blue carbon.”
Like other coastal wetlands mangroves are strong carbon sinks. Mangroves absorb carbon dioxide from the air and store it in their roots, branches, and the sediment they collect around them. They can store up to 10x more carbon than forests.
And unlike “green carbon” rainforests, which store carbon in biomass, and therefore release it when the trees die, mangroves store most of the carbon in their soil and sediment. It will remain there for many millennia if it is not disturbed.
This superpower means “blue carbon” (the sequestration and storage of carbon by ocean ecosystems) is gaining attention in the race towards net zero. And the “big three” stores of blue carbon—mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass—are suddenly urgent new areas of conservation.
According to the report, the ocean will have to account for as much as a fifth the reductions in emissions needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 C. High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy. Protecting and restoring seagrass, mangrove and salt marsh ecosystems —which account for more than 50 percent of all carbon storage in ocean sediments—could help absorb the equivalent of as much as 1.4 billion tons of emissionsIt says that a year will be 2050.
These ecosystems are some of the most threatened in the world by coastal development—damaged by farming, harmful fishing practices and pollution—so protecting and restoring them is expensive.
Get into the carbon-offset marketplace. To fund their work, some conservation groups sell carbon credits. For example, Verra, a non-profit organization based in the US that administers the world’s leading carbon-credit standard, estimates that the carbon emissions mitigated by Cispatá to be almost 1m tonnes over three decades—the equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions from the annual mileage of 214,000 cars.
María Claudia Diazgranados, a marine biologist and CI’s blue carbon director in Colombia, said: “We have been looking for a way to fund this ecosystem for years. Some 50 percent of mangroves have been lost from the Caribbean coast over the past three decades, due to cattle ranching, roads, and tourism.”
The money from selling blue carbon credits will go directly to communities to fund the Cispatá mangrove restoration. CI, which is also working with local partners and communities, hopes the credits will cover half of the project’s $600,000 operating costs. “The carbon market is not the goal, it’s the cherry on top,” says Diazgranados.
The carbon-offset market is still controversial. Not all schemes can be trusted. A Guardian investigationThis year, several carbon schemes were discovered that logging companies were selling carbon credits to offset the loss of forests.
However, for ocean scientists alarmed at the rate these ecosystems are disappearing, blue carbon could be used as leverage—to restore and conserve parts of the ocean that might not otherwise get much attention.
Seagrass meadows, for example, which can store carbon in the seabed far more quickly than tropical forests—a remarkable 35 times faster and storing it for millennia rather than decades—are disappearing at a rate of 7 percent a year. Only the UK has lost 39 percentSince the 1980s, it has been home to its seagrass meadows. In the meantime, at least 1,300 square miles of mangrove forests were lostBetween 2000 and 2016.
At Cispatá, communities are involved in both “avoiding deforestation,” the more controversial element of the carbon-offset market, and restoration. The first stage—conserving mangroves—has already paid off: CI has persuaded farmers not to allow their water buffaloes to graze and damage the forests. In a few weeks, the restoration stage of the forest will begin.
“It’s easier to prove sequestration of carbon if you plant mangroves than to prove avoiding deforestation if the project didn’t exist,” Diazgranados admits.
“One thing we have learned is that if you want to do conservation you need to work with local communities. We have a day-to-day presence there, a strict monitoring project, site visits and satellite-image analysis to prove the mangrove area stays the same.”
Dr Emily Pidgeon, vice-president for ocean science at CI, says Cispatá has avoided the pitfalls of other carbon-offset schemes. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons from what we have seen from terrestrial projects,” Pidgeon says, insisting that the Cispatá project has strict checks and balances, including a verified methodology to calculate the benefits to carbon emissions, communities and biodiversity. This includes frequent site visits and remote sensing techniques.
“About 10 years ago we became aware of carbon stored in coastal wetlands and how, if you restore them, the carbon stores increase,” she says. “Back then, it was considered a harebrained scheme. But Cispatá is the first blue carbon project to be verified by Verra and we have just sold our first blue carbon credits.”
CI is currently in negotiations with Colombian officials to expand its mangrove protection efforts at three additional locations.
Blue carbon specialist Dan Crockett from the Blue Marine Foundation (an ocean conservation charity) says that blue carbon investment has seen a rise in demand over the past 12 months. “We’ve been approached by giant Norwegian shipping companies, renewable energy companies, and finance companies looking for the opportunity to invest in blue carbon.”
Two reasons lie behind the demand, he says: “First, there is a global trend towards the need for nature-based solutions to the climate crisis. Second, there have been many breakthroughs in our understanding of oceans and the way they sequester and store carbon.”
Projects to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from mangroves are underway or in the planning stages in Senegal, Madagascar and Vietnam, as well as in India’s Sunderbans. Each project aims to reduce CO2 emissions by hundreds of thousands of tonnes per year.
By far the largest mangrove restoration project so far—nearly 25 times bigger than Cispatá—is the Indus delta project, on the Arabian Sea in Pakistan. Indus Delta Capital is a developer. The Sindh region government plans to protect and restore mangroves for over 500,000 people. 350,000 hectares.
Steve Crooks, from Silvestrum Climate Associates, is a coastal geologist who developed the blue-carbon finance scheme. Indus aims to absorb the equivalent to 2m tonnes CO2 per year and to sell 1m credit in 2021. The number will then increase to 30m credit over the next 10years.
He says blue carbon is a triple win. “They are a hot commodity right now, mostly to big industry. It’s a very promising time—for conservation financing, for restoration of these important ecosystems, and to help these countries who are missing important targets.”