While emissions reductions from the energy and transport sectors and the role of forests and soils as terrestrial carbon sinks have been at the centre of climate change discussions, the critical role of the oceans, and its wetland ecosystems in carbon capture and storage has been largely overlooked.
Our oceans play a significant role in the global carbon cycle. They are not only the world’s largest long term carbon sinks, but our oceans store and cycle 93% of the earth’s CO2. The world’s most crucial climate-combating wetland ecosystems, mangroves, saltmarshes, seagrasses, known collectively as Blue Carbon sinks, and estuaries capture and store the equivalent of up to half of the carbon emissions from the entire global transport sector every year, estimated at around 1 billion metric tons of carbon each year. Yet we are degrading these wetland ecosystems at a rapid pace from urban expansion, coastal development and through inappropriate catchment management practices.
Over the next 20 years, protecting, conserving and rehabilitating these precious Blue Carbon sinks globally would equate to 10% of the reductions needed to keep the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere at safe levels below 450ppm and would offset 3-7% of current fossil fuel emissions1 – over half of that projected for reducing rainforest deforestation. As for forests, maintaining or improving the ability of the oceans and its wetland ecosystems to absorb and bury CO2 is a crucial aspect of climate change mitigation for Australia.
“Science is now also telling us that we need to urgently address the question of ‘blue’ carbon. An estimated 50% of the carbon in the atmosphere that becomes bound or ‘sequestered’ in natural systems is cycled into the seas and oceans – another example of nature’s ingenuity for ‘carbon capture and storage’. However, as with forests we are rapidly turning that blue carbon into brown carbon by clearing and damaging the very marine ecosystems that are absorbing and storing greenhouse gases in the first place. This in turn will accelerate climate change, putting at risk communities including coastal ones along with other economically important assets such as coral reefs, freshwater systems and marine biodiversity as well as ‘hard’ infrastructure from ports to power stations. Targeted investments in the sustainable management of coastal and marine ecosystems – the natural infrastructure – alongside the rehabilitation and restoration of damaged and degraded ones, could prove a very wise transaction with inordinate returns.”
Achim Steiner UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director, UNEP 2009
Mainstreaming a Blue Carbon agenda
Globally, functioning coastal ecosystems are ranked among the most economically viable of all ecosystems and are estimated to be worth over $US 25,000 billion annually. These Blue Carbon sinks play a crucial role in maintaining climate, health, food security and economic development across coastal Australia. They also provide food, shelter and nursery areas for around 70% of the fish species we eat, amazing animals like seahorses and our native wildlife including the Orange-Bellied Parrot and the Water Mouse. WetlandCare Australia is working with our partners to improve the integrated management and connectivity of our coastal and marine environments, including the protection, conservation and rehabilitation of our Blue Carbon sinks. Together we are working to have these wetland ecosystems recognised in voluntary carbon and compliance schemes and to ensure a holistic ecosystem approach is adopted by governments that will not only reduce and mitigate the effects of climate change, but increase Australia’s food security, benefit health and productivity and help protect fragile coastal areas - a win-win mitigation strategy!
WetlandCare Australia’s 2015 conservation goals for Blue Carbon in Australia:
- Development of a national policy and framework for conserving, managing and rehabilitating Australia’s Blue Carbon sinks for carbon storage
- Rehabilitation of 20,000ha of priority Blue Carbon sinks across coastal catchments of Australia
- Establishment of at least 3 interdisciplinary research projects to improve our understanding of the role of Australian Blue Carbon sinks in carbon storage across tropical, sub tropical and temperate climates, including a series of pilot projects that build carbon storage measurements associated with ecosystem rehabilitation at priority locations
- Inclusion of coastal wetlands in the Voluntary Carbon Market and any national compliance scheme, as well as development of a national Blue Carbon Fund for the protection and management of coastal wetland carbon storage
- Completion of a feasibility study and pilot project to explore opportunities arising from Blue Carbon sinks and Voluntary Carbon Markets for indigenous and remote communities.
- A national approach to measuring and managing cumulative risk associated with urban and industry expansion pressures on Blue Carbon sink carbon storage
OUTCOME: As a mainstream component of Australia’s climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies Blue Carbon is an important factor in improving the health of critical coastal ecosystems that sustain ocean biodiversity (mangroves, saltmarsh and seagrass).