The Science on Blue Carbon Is There, but Is the Market?

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By Allie Goldstein

If you build it, will they come? That’s the question that the authors of blue carbon methodologies are now asking.

12 November 2014 | “Blue carbon” ecosystems include seagrasses, tidal salt marshes and mangroves that provide a myriad of benefits: They absorb storm surge along the world’s coasts, provide breeding grounds for fish species that people eat and sell, attract tourists, and – as many groups are now quantifying – store an incredible amount of carbon. These coastal oases are also some of the most threatened natural places on the planet and are being lost at a rate of about 2% per year, due mainly to aquaculture and coastal development. The emissions from blue carbon eco systems are similar to the emissions of Japan.

Despite their importance, the significance of coastal ecosystems to climate change was not widely recognized until recently. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) didn’t release its Wetlands Supplement for national-level wetlands carbon accounting until 2013. Before that, wetlands were not considered to be a “managed” land base.

However, over the last five years, coalitions such as The Blue Carbon Initiative which aims to develop financial incentives and policy mechanisms for restoring and conserving blue carbon ecosystems have emerged rapidly. The group released a manual for measuring blue carbon stocks last month and hopes the guide will be used to produce data that will flow into emerging carbon methodologies, as well as IPCC accounting.

The American Carbon Registry (ACR) released the first carbon methodology for wetlands restoration in the Mississippi Delta in 2012 and now hopes to expand its geographic scope to California. At the global scale, the Verified Carbon Standard’s (VCS) methodology for Tidal Wetland and Seagrass Restoration is wrapping up its first assessment (of two) and is expected to be available early in 2015.

Could carbon finance be a game-changer for these fast disappearing ecosystems? It depends.

“Generally I think the price of carbon is too low to support really most land-use activities, including wetlands. And wetlands projects are expensive,” said Steve Emmet-Mattox, one of the lead authors of the VCS methodology, speaking at the Restore America’s Estuaries Summit last week.

Coastal restoration, especially when it involves actually moving land, can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars per acre, so current carbon prices on the voluntary market (just under $5 per tonne, according to Ecosystem Marketplace’s State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets 2014) likely won’t move the needle.

Some project developers hope that blue carbon restoration methodologies will pave the way for blue carbon conservation methodologies that will function more like the avoided deforestation (REDD) methodologies available for forest ecosystems. One of the first projects to apply REDD principles to a blue carbon ecosystem is the Mikoko Pamoja project in the Gazi Bay of Kenya which aims to generate $12,000 per year in carbon revenue, from the sale of Plan Vivo certificates. Mikoko Pamoja covers just 117 hectares but avoided wetlands conversion projects could potentially be much larger.

Project developers also cite the importance of being able to group blue carbon projects to consolidate validation and verification costs, and the potential to quantify other ecosystem services to tip the cost-benefit analysis.