Are our oceans the secret solution to the climate crisis?
Scientists, researchers and innovators have long been looking for efficient and effective solutions to help tackle climate change, from carbon capturing to rewilding. But now, many are looking to the ocean as the key, exploring the potential of blue carbon.
Blue carbon refers to “carbon that has been captured and absorbed by our marine and coastal ecosystems,” Lucy McMahon, PhD student at University of York, tells the Leading Marine Women podcast. “Generally, when we talk about blue carbon, we are referring to three main ecosystems: salt marshes, mangroves and seagrasses.”
These ecosystems tend to make up a tiny blue line on global maps, but each sequesters more carbon per year than tropical forests—which is why they’re attracting the attention of researchers and innovators who are looking to make a big climate impact. Now, as governments and brands are setting plans to become net-zero, blue carbon is catching their eyes, too.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison singled out capturing blue carbon as one of the countries’ leading moves in restoring the planet. At the end of April, Morrison announced a $30 million blue carbon fund, which will see $19 million invested in restoring lost mangroves and wetlands, $10 million to support similar initiatives in neighboring countries, and a further $1 million in developing a carbon accounting method to help monitor the country’s emissions reduction targets.
Leaders in marine science are also turning their attention to blue carbon. Researchers at The Nature Conservancy and Virginia Institute of Marine Science—who have been committed to restoring the bays on Virginia’s shores for the past 20 years—recently announced a new partnership with Verra, the world’s largest Verified Carbon Standard. The partnership will help The Nature Conservancy gain carbon credit certification so that they can turn carbon dioxide (CO2) into blue carbon credits. As part of the project, they’ve focused on restoring eelgrass, which absorbs almost half a ton of CO2 per two and a half acres every year.
Global brands are jumpstarting blue carbon initiatives. Earlier this year, Apple and Gucci both announced commitments to mangrove restoration. Mangroves are an important component of the blue carbon conversation: the salt-tolerant trees that grow along coastlines have been deemed one of the most important carbon sinks. As part of Gucci’s Nature Positive strategy, their Muskitia Blue Carbon REDD+ project aims to protect 12,350 acres of mangroves in Honduras, while Apple launched a $200 million ‘Restore Fund’ in April to accelerate natural solutions to climate change, bolstering the company’s partnership with Conservation International to preserve 27,000 acres of a mangrove forest in Colombia.
In the UK, many are calling to rewild as much as one-third of oceans. New data from the Office for National Statistics found that the UK’s seabed is more valuable as a carbon sink absorbing pollution than as a source of oil and natural gas. According to Bloomberg, the results place the value of Britain’s marine “natural capital assets” at over $297 billion (£210 billion). The Marine Conservation Society and Rewilding Britain argue that restoring seagrass, salt marshes, oyster reefs and kelp forests are critical to reaching the UK’s 2050 goal of net-zero emissions.
Rewilding our waters may bring with it solutions to other world problems, too. Spanish chef Ángel León, known as ‘Chef del Mar’ or chef of the sea, believes the sea holds hidden depths for nutrition. While working to adapt five hectares (one hectare is equal to roughly two and a half acres) of salt marshes into eelgrass gardens on coastlines in Southern Spain, he discovered a new food source that lay within seagrass blades: an edible grain he dubbed “the rice of the sea,” which he serves at his Michelin-starred restaurant, Restaurante Eponiente. “In a world that is three-quarters water, it could fundamentally transform how we see oceans,” León told The Guardian. “This could be the beginning of a new concept of understanding the sea as a garden.”
With carbon markets (Article 6 of the Paris agreement) on the agenda at the UN Convention on Climate Change (COP26) later this year in Glasgow, the topic of blue carbon is gaining traction and drawing the attention of leaders in sustainability. For brands and businesses looking to make a positive environmental impact, funding blue carbon projects and exploring carbon credit projects could be viable ways to accelerate environmental goals.
Main image courtesy of The Marine Conservation Society, photography by Mark Kirkland