Stepping out from the shade: Why blue carbon is finally capturing the offsetting airtime

By Josh Holland, EcoAct, an Atos company

Mangroves in the project area of Semilla Azul, located in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula
Mangroves in the project area of Semilla Azul, located in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula (photo: EcoAct)

As emissions are set to rise this year, reducing them drastically is no longer enough to limit climate change catastrophe. We need to use every tool at our disposal to deploy strategies that are aligned with the latest climate science, including nature-based solutions.

Nature-based solutions are interventions that use nature and the natural functions of healthy ecosystems to tackle some of the most pressing challenges of our time. While the concept of offsetting emissions has existed for over 30 years, maximising our investments in nature-based solutions must be a priority for businesses if we are to address the climate crisis.

Funding Nature Based Solutions for better business
It’s clear that more avenues need to be pursued, but this relies on securing funding to tap into the true potential of nature-based solutions, such as blue carbon. As an example, the average cost of restoring mangroves is USD 9,000 per hectare. Governmental funding is not coming at the speed that climate science is demanding. According to the State of Finance for Nature in the G20 report, if the world is to meet the climate change, biodiversity, and land degradation targets, it needs to close a USD 4.1 trillion financing gap in nature by 2050.

More and more companies are already including funding for nature-based solutions as part of their net-zero goals. By investing in nature, they understand that not only are they reducing their environmental impact, but they are also future-proofing their businesses – nature loss is relentlessly hitting companies through disruptions in their operations and supply chains.

However, to boost private capital for nature-based solutions, we need a better understanding of their full potential – as well as robust methodologies that allow us to quantify the full spectrum of benefits.

From the trees to the oceans: remapping our carbon sinks
Traditionally, offsetting projects have focused on the familiar green carbon approaches of tree planting, forest restoration, inland conservation and more. However, green carbon sinks aren’t growing fast enough. To accelerate progress, governments and businesses should turn their attention towards the rapidly growing research and data on the potential of blue carbon.

So, why do trees continue to dominate the offsetting conversation when another answer surrounds us? In recent times, increasing attention has been drawn to the immense carbon storing potential of coastal and marine ecosystems. The ocean covers 70% of the earth’s total landmass, circulates 83% of the global carbon cycle and coastal habitats are recognised for their enhanced carbon sequestration properties compared with terrestrial forests. Is blue carbon finally stepping out from the shadows cast by trees into its rightful place in the offsetting conversation? How can it tackle rising temperatures while supporting coastal communities and habitats, and what do current projects look like?

Global distribution of blue carbon ecosystems (illustration: Blue Carbon Initiative)
Global distribution of blue carbon ecosystems (illustration: Blue Carbon Initiative)

The distinct roles of green and blue carbon
Despite the imbalance, both “green” and “blue” carbon are essential to the net-zero conversation. Blue carbon, however, has the potential to be a superior option due to the ocean’s better carbon storing potential. Compared to terrestrial forests, oceans typically hold a significantly larger amount of carbon and can remove CO2 from the atmosphere at a faster rate.

Blue carbon ecosystems must be preserved to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We can’t make the same mistakes we did with our forests. According to the United Nations, we lose 88,000 square kilometres of natural forest globally every year. That’s one football pitch every 2 seconds. Mangroves seem to be suffering the same fate – these are being lost at a rate of 2-3% per year, with between 35-50% of mangroves lost between 1980 and 2000 globally.

Mangroves are under threat due to aquaculture, conversion to farmland, urbanisation, and are also typically used as fuel for traditional cookstoves. It is therefore important to invest in projects that help regenerate mangrove ecosystems but also address the threats that lead to their degradation.

Restoring mangrove ecosystems in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula
The fourth highest mangrove cover in the world can be found in Mexico, and the Yucatán Peninsula. It is also home to the most unique mangrove ecosystem of all, the Petén, which, unlike most mangroves, grows in freshwater. Mangrove forests are biodiversity hotspots – according to UNESCO, up to 304 migratory and residential bird species have been recorded in these ecosystems. Beyond the benefits they bring to environmental protection, however, the preservation of mangroves also brings social and economic benefits to local communities.

Together with Mexican women-led NGO, Resiliencia Azul, EcoAct has developed a blue carbon project, Semilla Azul, its first Blue Carbon project to pass the feasibility study and will be registered to the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS). With local community members at the heart of the project, 5,000 hectares of mangrove forest will be restored in the Yucatán Peninsula. As project owners, members of the community will decide on the direction of the project and its activities and will also be trained to carry out restoration activities.

Finding the right methodologies for the right project
As stated earlier, science-based and verified methodologies should be at the forefront of blue carbon investment and implementation. Validated methodologies, such as by the VCS Program, should be used. There is no “one size fits all” approach to nature-based solutions and we should consider the unique challenges and needs of every ecosystem.

photo: EcoAct
photo: EcoAct

For instance, EcoAct designed unique preservation methodologies for French territories, which were submitted for validation to the French Ministry of Ecological Transition. They were submitted to the “Label bas-carbone”, a standard created by the Ministry that certifies high-impact offsetting projects implemented in France.

The first methodology, developed together with Interxion, Schneider Electric France and the Calanques National Park, aims to certify conservation and preservation measures for seagrass beds within the French “Label bas-carbone” framework. It will focus on the development of GHG emission reductions and carbon sequestration accounting methodology for Posidonia seagrass meadows preservation.

EcoAct is currently working closely with its partners to carry out a pilot project to test the methodology within the Calanques National Park, located in the Mediterranean coast. The second methodology, developed in partnership with I4CE and EIT Climate-KIC facilitates the development of mangrove and wetland restoration and protection projects certified by the “Label bas-carbone” standard. From these methodologies, we would be able to bring impactful blue carbon projects to life.

Benefits beyond carbon: how local environments and communities can benefit
The global Blue Carbon Coalition – announced at the One Ocean Summit – aims to bring together national and multilateral actors to contribute to financing the restoration of coastal ecosystems, using shared and rigorous methodologies.

Carbon reduction is only one part of an important effort to improve climate change adaptation efforts globally. Blue carbon projects have the potential to transform livelihoods in coastal habitats and communities, creating sustainable fishing opportunities and ecotourism, for instance.

Ultimately, responsible blue carbon offsetting can play a major role in achieving net-zero and reducing impacts of climate change. However, it is essential that businesses take responsibility to collaborate only with carbon offsetting providers that are partners of the most rigorous standards, signatories to best practice and audited by third parties, such as the International Carbon Reduction & Offset Alliance (ICROA) accredited organisations. This way, they can develop robust offsetting strategies and access high-integrity carbon credits that can benefit both the communities and ecosystems to ensure our continued survival and wellbeing.

Josh Holland, Associate Director, Natured Based Solutions, EcoAct, an Atos company
Josh Holland, Associate Director, Natured Based Solutions, EcoAct, an Atos company