Blogs, Events & News Insights from the field Answering important questions on Blue Carbon Mark Beeston Background: Mark is a freshwater and marine ecologist with experience from the Amazon to the Antarctic. Mark modelled carbon flow processes in mangrove systems for his research Masters at the University of Portsmouth, followed by fieldwork at the National University of Singapore. He is co-author of the Gallifrey Foundation’s Blue Carbon: Mind the Gap paper. Currently, he is collaborating with NGOs, project developers, research institutions and carbon standards to develop the Fair Carbon initiative. Robyn Shilland Background: Robyn is a research assistant at Edinburgh Napier University and works for the Association for Coastal Ecosystem Services (ACES) supporting blue carbon projects in East Africa. Her work in marketing and trading blue carbon credits on behalf of the Mikoko Pamoja and Vanga Blue Forest projects, as well as her research into the ethics of carbon trading and the potential for a future of ethical offsetting, have given her over 8 years of experience of the blue carbon market. Recently, Robyn’s research into the opportunities and challenges of seagrass carbon and other Payments for Ecosystem Services is leading ACES in developing a community-led seagrass conservation project alongside certified mangrove carbon projects. There is huge potential for Blue Carbon, as a Nature-Based Solution, due to its effectiveness at storing carbon, up to five times more than terrestrial forests per hectare. However, there are also social, political, and economic challenges for Blue Carbon projects. When these challenges are addressed well, it can lead to the creation of sustainable livelihoods. Plus, it can contribute to the preservation of important coastal habitats and the protection of coasts and their inhabitants, alongside the carbon benefits. On May 12th, Plan Vivo hosted a webinar on the opportunities and challenges for blue carbon with an outstanding panel joined by Prof Mark Huxham and Robyn Shilland from Edinburgh Napier University and ACES, Mark Beeston from Fair Carbon and Gallifrey Foundation, Ryan Merrill from Global Mangrove Trust, Leah Glass from Blue Ventures, and Blanca Bernal from Winrock International. The event generated a lot of interest. As a follow up to the extensive questions from the audience, we have prepared this article. Pick your question: If 90% of carbon is sequestered below ground in a mangrove area, if it gets destroyed, does that carbon get released since it is in the soil/mud? How are blue carbon projects increasing compliance from people working in these coastal areas e.g., fishing communities, when doing their ecosystem restoration work? If you should choose, which would you say is more important when it comes to investing funds: mangrove restoration or protection? I note that your operationalised definition of blue carbon is in the intertidal. There are huge sediment and biota carbon reservoirs below the tide line. Can the concept be expanded to include these carbon pools, and if it can, how do we do it? One of the major challenges experienced by communities is lack of funds to engage is restoration/conservation projects. What/which straight forward avenues are there for communities to access funds to engage in sustainable use schemes that would allow for mangrove ecosystem restoration, while at the same time enhancing livelihoods and building resilience What have been the best resources/websites for understanding carbon accreditation from your experience? Are you planning to develop some guidance or a hub yourself? Can I know your views on relocation of mangrove forests because of land reclamation? Is the trade-off worth it and is replanting mangroves at another location to compensate the best option? I'm from Malaysia and this is a concern that more people need to know. What is the recommended planting density for afforestation? How does this density affect the biomass measurement in later years? In how much detail is the benefits sharing defined in mangrove legal frameworks (say in Kenya and Madagascar for instance) when it comes to receiving payment for carbon credits? Are they all going to communities (if they have full tenure rights?) or shared with relevant authorities and other stakeholders? (e.g., supporting NGOs, research services, etc.) What role does seagrass restoration work play in the blue carbon framework - we see it done for mangroves, but it is unclear how it applies to seagrass areas? What would be a wise step to start promoting a blue carbon initiative in a country not used to supporting these kinds of projects? There is an open discussion and indeed, serious plans of some standards for including macro algae in the Blue Carbon scope (for certification). What is the opinion of the panellists? Can we hear more about the benefits of mangroves in protecting coastal communities from extreme weather events? Does blue carbon under a Plan Vivo methodology generate ERs or Removals? Are we afraid that overtime when the carbon project become so very successful (they are getting high campaigns) government or private sector will overshadow the communities and take over project and make it impossible for communities to benefit from them? If 90% of carbon is sequestered below ground in a mangrove area, if it gets destroyed, does that carbon get released since it is in the soil/mud? Robyn: In short: yes. Mangrove roots hold the carbon-rich soils in place, preventing the carbon from being washed out to sea or exposed to the air and degraded; both scenarios will result in at least some of the stored organic carbon being remineralised into carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is in addition to the lost potential for mangrove forests to continue sequestering carbon in their biomass and soils. Because of this, mangrove degradation and deforestation are a huge emitter of CO2 – one study showed that 24 million tonnes of CO2 are lost to the atmosphere every year from mangrove deforestation. However, quantifying just how much of this carbon is lost to the atmosphere can be more complicated. If it is washed out to sea, some might be stored in deep-sea mud instead of being remineralised. Some, if buried deep enough (mangrove soils can reach 8m in depth), may stay in place for at least some time to come, and if the area is reforested in that time, then that may protect the carbon once more. Because of these uncertainties, when developing blue carbon projects, project developers may need to take a conservative approach to how much soil carbon they can claim as protecting by avoiding deforestation and forest degradation. How are blue carbon projects increasing compliance from people working in these coastal areas e.g., fishing communities, when doing their ecosystem restoration work? Robyn: As for any conservation or restoration project, engagement with those who rely on the natural resources under protection is key to creating a socially just, effective, and sustainable project. Mangrove forests are depended on by coastal communities around the world for firewood, building materials, fishing and other sources of sustenance and income. Meaningful consultation and engagement with these groups from the project planning stage is vital to secure community buy-in and reassure communities that they will not be negatively impacted. In many cases, a history of top-down environmental conservation may have left a feeling of resistance to protect areas and patience, transparency and compromise is needed to secure community support for a project. This stage of project development will likely take time but forms the foundations of a strong project. Mitigation measures may be needed to replace the timber that communities are no longer able to extract from mangroves. Managed woodlots can provide a sustainable alternative to mangrove wood, with the added benefit of reduced time and effort needed to access it instead of cutting mangroves. Alternative livelihoods schemes can be developed to reduce the reliance on cutting timber for income, including the production of non-timber forest products such as beekeeping. More broadly, allocating project funds for community development can increase support for the project by demonstrating benefits to the whole community. If you should choose, which would you say is more important when it comes to investing funds: mangrove restoration or protection? Robyn: For mangrove restoration to be done right, the right trees need to go in the right places. Often, putting propagules or seedlings in the ground isn’t enough – they need to be nurtured and protected to survive, particularly if the surrounding forest is degraded and no longer provides the protection to seedlings that it once did. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned but misguided restoration efforts get this wrong, leading to failed planting efforts. Chances are that if a mangrove forest can recover – if the surrounding environment is right – it will do, so often the best approach is ecological restoration of the landscape to create the right conditions for seedlings to grow. There are cases where planting has been done well, where ecological restoration is prioritised to allow natural regeneration of the forest. Protecting our existing mangrove forests delivers a far higher carbon benefit than planting – new trees take years to start sequestering the same amount of carbon in their biomass and soils as old-growth forests. Mature forests provide services such as biodiversity enhancement and coastal protection, which new trees cannot match. Mature forests also hold carbon stores that must be kept in the ground – a 2020 study showed that mangroves are an example of “irrecoverable carbon” that, if destroyed, cannot be recovered in time to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change. When done well, mangrove planting can restore degraded forests and contribute to long-term carbon storage – but in the short term, for the sake of our climate, biodiversity, and coastal communities, protecting our existing mangroves is vital. I note that your operationalised definition of blue carbon is in the intertidal. There are huge sediment and biota carbon reservoirs below the tide line. Can the concept be expanded to include these carbon pools, and if it can, how do we do it? Mark: The exact definition of blue carbon is yet to be agreed upon, but in a wider sense it can include any marine ecosystem or biological mechanism that transports or stores carbon. Currently, though, there are no accepted methodologies for how to measure how degraded all these different systems are, how to calculate the associated loss in carbon sequestration, and how to design a way organisations can intervene to reverse that degradation with a clearly quantifiable carbon benefit. Plus, the scale of some mechanisms is so huge that national or international policy would be required to have any significant effect - and that is beyond the scope of the voluntary carbon market. There is research under way examining the potential for using macroalgaes for carbon offsetting, but questions remain in how the carbon, once it has been captured in biomass, can then be stored in the long term. One of the major challenges experienced by communities is lack of funds to engage is restoration/conservation projects. What/which straight forward avenues are there for communities to access funds to engage in sustainable use schemes that would allow for mangrove ecosystem restoration, while at the same time enhancing livelihoods and building resilience Mark: This is indeed a major challenge and one we are hoping to ease via the Fair Carbon project by connecting conservation groups and relevant sources of funding together. It is possible to register on our website as an early user and guides will begin to be published over the next few months. The information is mostly out there but is dispersed piecemeal across the internet, is difficult to locate, and can change rapidly as grant opportunities open and close. There are conversations happening about creating a dedicated seed funding mechanism for community carbon projects, but who/how to administer such a fund, and who has the capacity to identify which applicants are legitimate, remains to be seen. For mangroves, I would suggest contacting a carbon standard such as Plan Vivo for their recommendations on current funding opportunities, and additionally applying for membership of the Global Mangrove Alliance to increase your networking reach. The inaugural "State of the World's Mangroves" report is due for release in July and may also help you identify other organisations active in your area. What have been the best resources/websites for understanding carbon accreditation from your experience? Are you planning to develop some guidance or a hub yourself? Mark: In all honesty, I read through every publicly available project design document I could get my hands on, and I found seeing how others had done it was the most useful way to understand it myself. It was doing this that inspired the idea behind Fair Carbon - to lay out the methods used in a clear, step by step fashion, with country-specific guidance wherever possible. Our beta-testing mapping platform, which provides clear links to the technical specifications for each project, will be live soon, and technical guidelines are in development. There is a wealth of easily discoverable information in the Plan Vivo project registry. Can I know your views on relocation of mangrove forests because of land reclamation? Is the trade-off worth it and is replanting mangroves at another location to compensate the best option? I'm from Malaysia and this is a concern that more people need to know. Mark: My personal view on the relocation of mangrove forests is that, wherever possible, avoiding destruction of mangroves at all should be considered the best option, however in some instances this may be unavoidable. In those cases, any effort to compensate for their loss is better than no effort at all. I am not familiar with the success rates of attempting to create mangrove habitat on newly created land but would imagine there would be significant challenges as the coastline would be massively changed, altering hydrology and sediment delivery. Restoring mangroves in a location where they have previously existed, away from the coastal engineering work, may be more successful. The value of mangroves of course is not just in their carbon - and removing mangroves can generate significant CO2 emissions which will not be offset just by planting the same area elsewhere - but also in their function as habitat for commercially important fish and other biodiversity, and the protection they offer against erosion and extreme weather events. These additional values are often not fully taken into consideration when making planning decisions. However, whether the trade-off is worth it or not is not up to me to decide. What is the recommended planting density for afforestation? How does this density affect the biomass measurement in later years? Mark: I would recommend looking at ecological mangrove restoration - particularly the excellent guides by Lewis & Brown - and check out the Mangrove Action Project website. Planting location, hydrology, using the correct species and preventing the cause of ecosystem damage are of primary importance. Clumping seedlings together in high density planting is unlikely to massively increase future biomass due to mortality from competition, and monocultures have been shown to be more susceptible to damage from extreme weather events. In how much detail is the benefits sharing defined in mangrove legal frameworks (say in Kenya and Madagascar for instance) when it comes to receiving payment for carbon credits? Are they all going to communities (if they have full tenure rights?) or shared with relevant authorities and other stakeholders? (e.g., supporting NGOs, research services, etc.) Robyn: This varies on a case-by-case (or a country-by-country) basis, but generally benefit sharing frameworks are not explicitly defined by tenureship or management rights agreements; rather they are negotiated and agreed upon as part of specific tools, such as Plan Vivo certification. Tenureship or management rights frameworks may specify broad objectives of their implementation. For example, in Kenya, management rights are held under a co-management agreement between the community and Kenya Forest Service. The explicit aims of these co-management agreements are, under the Kenyan Forests Act, to (a) increase efficiency in mangrove management, (b) facilitate community participation in forest governance, and (c) ensure the flow of benefits to community. This last aim is not prescriptive and does not specify how benefits should be allocated or shared but does ensure that community benefit is at the heart of this devolved management framework. The Plan Vivo Standard certification held by the Mikoko Pamoja and Vanga Blue Forest projects in Kenya builds on this requirement for community benefit by specifying that at least 60% of the proceeds of carbon credit sales going to the community. The project design enshrines community development and other co-benefits such as biodiversity enhancement alongside carbon sequestration, ensuring that local people benefit as well as the environment. What role does seagrass restoration work play in the blue carbon framework - we see it done for mangroves, but it is unclear how it applies to seagrass areas? Robyn: Currently there are no formal ‘seagrass credits’ issued anywhere in the world, although the Mikoko Pamoja project does include a seagrass “added benefit” based on protection of seagrass meadows alongside mangrove forest. The near complete absence of seagrass in certified blue carbon projects is due to a combination of scientific, technical, policy and financial challenges. Key challenges include lack of access to tenure ship agreements for the intertidal region, challenges in governing seagrass meadows as a ‘common resource’ used by many marine stakeholders, technical challenges in monitoring an intertidal ecosystem and reliance on soil carbon (which requires technical methods to measure) and gaps in the science of where seagrass soil carbon comes from and where it goes if the seagrass is disturbed. The carbon sequestration of seagrass is around 1/5 – ¼ that of mangrove forests, meaning fewer carbon credits and less income per hectare, yet the cost of implementation remains the same, making seagrass less viable than mangroves as a candidate for carbon credits. These challenges are expanded on in this UNEP report written by the Mikoko Pamoja project developers. What would be a wise step to start promoting a blue carbon initiative in a country not used to supporting these kinds of projects? Mark: If you mean how to start a project, step one will always be to look at what has been done before. For example, are there already active carbon offsetting projects in other ecosystems, like terrestrial forests? What legal frameworks do they use, and which government department is responsible for related policy? Are there already groups managing mangrove sites for conservation, and how did they solve land tenure issues? This can give you a good starting point to understand country-specific challenges, where to begin and who to talk to. Once you know if setting up a blue carbon project is even legal or not, then you can move on to modelling the economic value of a site and the impacts – positive and negative – on the people who already use that habitat. It may be, if there is no extant legal framework, that you need to be able to demonstrate the positive impact of a model project to, for example, government forestry departments or other governing bodies. If you can provide evidence of environmental, social, and economic benefits from a blue carbon project, then you’re in a good position to start that dialogue. There is an open discussion and indeed, serious plans of some standards for including macro algae in the Blue Carbon scope (for certification). What is the opinion of the panellists? Mark: The carbon standards base their certification on rigorous scientific data. It’s absolutely worth investigating the potential of macroalgae as a carbon sink and also as a sustainable food source. I believe Carlos Duarte and several other groups around the world are looking at different species in different locations and I am excited to see their results. The biggest challenge will be what to do with the macroalgae biomass where the carbon is stored - macroalgae being very different to mangroves or seagrass which capture particulate carbon and trap it in sediments. Once enough robust data exists, standards will be able to move forward. Can we hear more about the benefits of mangroves in protecting coastal communities from extreme weather events? Robyn: Much of the interest around mangroves just now focuses on their incredible carbon storage potential, but it is also important to recognise other services that they provide, including coastal protection. They form a natural sea wall, dissipating the energy of waves as they approach the coast, lowering the height and reducing the power of tsunamis, and acting as a buffer against sea level rise. Mangrove forests can also work alongside other coastal ecosystems and features including sandbanks, coral reefs and even seagrass meadows which collectively protect the shoreline from erosion. Research has shown that these ecosystems together are more powerful than the sum of each alone, which demonstrates the value of protection that incorporates multiple blue carbon habitats. By restoring mangroves and other coastal ecosystems, land managers can create natural and sustainable coastal defences that protect coastal communities and their land, contributing to adaptation to the effects of climate change. Does blue carbon under a Plan Vivo methodology generate ERs or Removals? Robyn: It can do both: if it is mangrove restoration (planting trees) then it would generate removals credits, as the new trees will start to sequester carbon in their biomass and soils, thereby removing CO2 from the atmosphere. However, if a project protects existing forests by reducing the degradation and deforestation of mangroves, it generates both removals and emissions reductions credits: by calculating the rate of emissions in the business-as-usual scenario, project developers can demonstrate the reduction of emissions that would have taken place if the project interventions were not implemented (both from the loss of biomass and the degradation of exposed soils). In addition to this, project developers can calculate the carbon that will continue to be sequestered by forests that would have, under the business-as-usual scenario, been cut down. In this way, forest protection generates both emissions reductions and removal of CO2. Are we afraid that overtime when the carbon project become so very successful (they are getting high campaigns) government or private sector will overshadow the communities and take over project and make it impossible for communities to benefit from them? Robyn: An upcoming risk to community-led projects is a changing policy landscape in which Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are becoming more ambitious and including more blue carbon, and the way that public and private carbon markets are changing under an evolving Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. Together these hold the potential to enable more large-scale blue carbon protection, but as the question states, there may be a risk in this as those projects are co-opted by governments to meet their own carbon emissions targets. The key here is to highlight that these projects have been successful because of their autonomy and community foundations, and that these elements need to be protected for their continued success. Project developers and community groups can work with government agencies and officials to ensure that the projects contribute to national-level strategies and policies and are aligned with government objectives and targets, thereby providing a win-win for local communities and governments and providing an incentive for governments to protect the autonomy of community-based projects. The prestige of successful and well-known blue carbon projects – which are still so few across the globe – can be as beneficial to governments as they are to the communities themselves. Kenya is renowned as a world leader in blue carbon thanks to the Mikoko Pamoja project – the first of its kind globally – and its sister project, Vanga Blue Forest. Both projects are visited by Kenyan and international politicians and promoted at high levels, including by the Kenyan prime minister. They have influenced mangrove management in Kenya and further afield, and have demonstrated how a successful, community-led project can deliver benefits locally, nationally, and internationally.