Alexandra Tracy, Green Finance Advisor of Friends of the Earth (HK)
We are all familiar with the mangrove forests that line our coasts, but perhaps not everyone is aware of the tremendous value that they provide to ecosystems around Asia. Mangroves grow in shallow water, and have a unique filtration system which makes them one of the few plants that can survive in salty conditions. Mangroves are hubs of biodiversity, providing homes for fish, crabs, birds and hundreds of plant species.
Mangroves also have thick roots, which play a key role in protecting coastlines from erosion and creating natural buffers against storm surges. Following a study of 59 subtropical countries, scientists at the University of California Santa Cruz estimated that mangrove forests prevent over $65 billion in property damage every year, and help shelter more than 15 million people.
In addition to all these virtues, mangroves are some of the most effective carbon sinks in the world. Carbon stored in coastal ecosystems differs from that in forests and grasslands in that additional biomass accumulates from organic matter being washed up by the tide. The saltwater inhibits the breakdown of the organic material (which would otherwise produce methane). As a consequence, mangroves can sequester up to ten times more carbon than terrestrial forests, according to Conservation International.
However, mangroves are under threat. Rising sea levels and temperatures, as well as human impacts such as pollution and erosion, have caused rapid deterioration in coastal and marine areas. The most extensive mangrove coverage in the region is located in Indonesia, where it spans some 14,000 square miles. But sadly, up to 20 percent of Indonesia’s annual emissions total is created by loss and conversion of mangrove areas to aquaculture. Across Asia, mangrove destruction has reached around 95,000 acres every year.
Capturing the value
The concept of forest carbon is well known and recognised by payments through the global REDD+ programme and the voluntary carbon markets. Recently, the idea of “blue carbon” – carbon sequestration by marine and coastal ecosystems – has also begun to gain traction in international carbon credit markets.
Mangrove restoration is the most well developed kind of blue carbon credit project to date. Scientists at the National University of Singapore recently concluded that about 20 percent of the world’s mangrove forests are suitable for such projects, and possibly half of that could be protected with inexpensive carbon credit prices starting at $5 per ton.
A number of mangrove projects are in development or operating already, covering sites in Africa, Asia and South America. One of the largest efforts to date is the Delta Blue Carbon Project located in 350,000 hectares of tidal wetlands on the south east coast of Sindh in Pakistan. It aims to reforest more than 200,000 acres of mangroves and absorb two million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent every year.
Growing corporate demand for blue carbon
A number of corporates are already active in investing in the voluntary markets for blue carbon through buying offsets. Companies in industries such as shipping and tourism have been early entrants, as they can put money into conserving the landscapes on which they have a direct impact, while offsetting their own emissions. MSC Cruises, for example, recently announced that it will offset all carbon dioxide emissions from its fleet marine operations through a carbon offset portfolio focused on restoring ocean and coastal habitats.
As an indication of the growing momentum around blue carbon, over the past year, a number of big name brands have launched mangrove protection and restoration projects to help combat their greenhouse gas emissions. For example, Procter and Gamble has partnered with Conservation International on the Palawan Protection Project in the Philippines, which will safeguard 31 species of mangroves on almost 110,000 acres of forests. Earlier this year, Gucci announced its Muskitia Blue Carbon REDD+ project to protect over 12,000 acres of mangroves in Honduras. And Apple is involved in two large projects in Columbia, also with Conservation International, which together could sequester over two million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
The market for private investment is still relatively new, and carbon accounting frameworks need to be modified to facilitate the widespread uptake of blue carbon into the voluntary offset market. The efforts of specialists, such as Blue Ventures in Madagascar, as well as corporates like Apple, who have been pushing for a rigorous methodology to underpin blue carbon projects, will stimulate project development and attract greater interest from investors.
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