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Blue Carbon solutions to climate change need action in the ‘Marine Super Year’

In the last of our series of blogs launching the Wildlife and Countryside Link 2021 Marine Scorecard for Defra, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust's Senior Policy & Advocacy Officer Hannah Freeman explains why the Government must do more to recognise the value of Blue Carbon and act to invest in these habitats

April 2021

Our planet and the UK are suffering the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. We need to act now both nationally and globally to tackle these crises before it is too late. Protection, creation and restoration of coastal and marine habitats can provide a valuable part of the solution.

Blue Carbon habitats vary hugely including shelf sea sediment, sea grass, oyster beds and saltmarsh. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) focus our efforts on promoting saltmarsh, showcasing the potential of coastal wetlands to store carbon alongside multiple other benefits.

In 2021, the Marine Super Year, the UK Government will play host to the United Nations Climate Conference, COP26. Wildlife and Countryside Link have published a scorecard highlighting actions we would like to see from Government this year. This includes:

  • Action to prioritise the creation, protection and restoration of coastal and marine sites with potential for the greatest natural carbon storage

Newly created saltmarsh habitats bury large amounts of carbon. For example, WWT Steart Marshes is a nature reserve burying carbon at a rate of approximately 25-32 tonnes per hectare. This is likely to be an underestimate, as measurements do not include carbon sequestered within the vegetation of the developing saltmarsh (Mossman, H., unpublished data, Manchester Metropolitan University).

Saltmarsh provides many other benefits including adaptation and resilience to climate change such as buffering against storm surges. It is rich in biodiversity, including 40 species of higher plants and 100+ species of invertebrate that are found almost exclusively in saltmarshes. They also provide a nursery for fish, including economically important species such as sea bass and whiting, and deliver a range of other economic, health and well-being benefits. WWT Steart Marshes provides a net annual ecosystem service benefit of between £491,000 and £913,000.

Despite these benefits, saltmarsh extent continues to decrease. We are losing valuable natural habitat and releasing the carbon stored therein. There is so much potential for coastal and marine habitats to store carbon if we protect them properly and invest in their creation and restoration. The scorecard also calls for:

  • At least one of the of the pilot Highly Protected Marine Areas should focus on Blue Carbon protection and restoration as recommended in the Benyon Review

Defra has not yet published its response to the Benyon review of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) which was released on World Oceans Day last year. By doubling up HPMAs with Blue Carbon habitats, such as saltmarsh, there is an opportunity to maximise recovery of these habitats.

To substantially capture and store carbon these sites need to be extensive, and they need to be established soon. A mixture of HPMAs, well managed MPAs and recovery of the wider marine environment is needed to realise our Blue Carbon potential. For example, protecting 3.6% of the world’s ocean from bottom trawling in key areas would eliminate 90% of the present risk of carbon disturbance due to bottom trawling (currently resulting in 1,470 megatonnes of carbon emissions a year from the seabed). This is comparable to estimates of carbon loss in terrestrial soils caused by farming. This calls for a globally coordinated effort.

Finally the scorecard states that:

  • On the international stage; Government should advocate for the preservation of Blue Carbon to be recognised as a key nature-based solution and climate mitigation strategy.

In order to avoid devastation, Governments globally must act now and deliver on the Paris Agreement, delivering rapid and meaningful emissions reductions across all sectors and effective nature based solutions. WWT are calling for the UK to lead the way through:

  • comprehensive Blue Carbon accounting (Link are also calling for separate accounting of emissions and removals)
  • investment in protecting, creating, restoring and managing habitat and stimulating private finance nationally and internationally
  • an effective regulatory framework for buyers and sellers of voluntary offsets, including carbon codes for Blue Carbon habitats, which set clear standards for best practice habitat creation, restoration and management for carbon storage.

The Government must start putting people and the planet first and act ambitiously to mitigate and adapt to climate change. As COP26 chair the UK has a fantastic opportunity to advocate protecting, creating and restoring Blue Carbon habitats internationally. Government must showcase the potential of nature based solutions such as saltmarshes for climate change mitigation, supporting these habitats which deliver many benefits for people and for nature.