The ocean contributes $1.5 trillion annually to the global economy and assures the livelihood of 10-12 percent of the world’s population. But there’s another reason to protect marine ecosystems—they’re crucial for curbing climate change.
A Key Moment for the Ocean and Climate Action
Today is World Oceans Day, exactly one year from the first UN ocean conference. This year is shaping up to be a critical one for ocean action. The 53 member countries of the Commonwealth adopted the Commonwealth Blue Charter on Ocean Action earlier this year, a plan to protect coral reefs, restore mangroves and remove plastic pollution, among other actions. Ocean conservation is the centerpiece of the upcoming G7 meeting. Kenya is holding the inaugural Blue Economy Conference in November. And substantial negotiations for a new UN treaty for conservation of the high seas will begin in September.
The ocean and coastal ecosystems provide an untapped, nature-based climate solution that needs to be part of both conversations.
The Ocean As a Climate Solution
“Blue carbon” ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass meadows and kelp forests are 10 times more effective at sequestering carbon dioxide on a per area basis per year than boreal, temperate or tropical forests, and about twice as effective at storing carbon in their soil and biomass. They also play a crucial role in protecting coastal infrastructure and communities from climate impacts, including extreme weather events.
Mangroves are found in 123 countries and territories and are estimated to cover more than 150,000 square kilometers globally. Mangroves buffer coastal communities from wind and waves, acting as a frontline defense against storms and sea level rise.
Restoring coastal wetlands to their 1990 extent would increase annual carbon sequestration by 160 megatonnes a year, equivalent to offsetting the burning of 77.4 million tonnes of coal.
National Climate Commitments: An Opportunity to Advance Action on Climate and the Ocean
Countries have made commitments to advance climate action in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. Known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), the ocean and coastal ecosystems are currently underrepresented in these commitments.
There are a number of policy options for incorporating blue carbon ecosystems into NDCs. These include:
Creating or protecting blue carbon ecosystems (including through Marine Protected Areas). This includes establishing buffer zones to reduce impacts from adjacent land use and allowing mangroves to migrate inland in response to sea level rise.
Reforesting or rehabilitating degraded blue carbon ecosystems.
Introducing incentives to create new or protect existing blue carbon ecosystems on privately owned land, including through access to carbon markets.
Ensuring the mitigation potential of blue carbon ecosystems is included in national greenhouse gas inventories.
Recognizing the Blue Carbon Economy
Of course, curbing climate change isn’t the only reason to invest in ocean and coastal ecosystem protection. Coastal ecosystems can also strengthen coastal communities’ resilience to natural hazards—including storms (mangroves absorb the energy of storm-driven waves and wind), flooding, erosion and fire. Wetlands provide nurseries for the many species of fish that support economies and improve food security. And marine protected areas can also protect biodiversity.
Fighting climate change is just yet another benefit the ocean provides us. It’s time to start recognizing its protection as a climate change solution.