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More lawmakers and investors tap blue carbon offsets to mitigate climate change

December 16, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC

One November morning in Cispatá Bay, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, about a dozen mangleros—mangrove workers—clambered into canoes pulled out to the mangrove forests by a small speedboat. They paddled into the waterways, stopping every so often at a tree marked with orange spray paint to climb out and hack at the dry snarled roots.

The mangrove forest in Cispatá is among the first in the world to have the carbon stored in its roots, trunks, leaves, and soil calculated, certified, and given a price on the international carbon market.

This is what most blue carbon initiatives look like right now around the world: small-scale conservation projects in the early stages of monetizing their stores of carbon. But increasingly, a growing number of lawmakers, investors, and climate advocates are aiming to change that, citing mounting scientific research on how blue carbon technology can help transform the global response to climate change.

In November, U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski from Alaska and Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island reintroduced the Blue Carbon for Our Planet Act, which would aim to conserve and restore coastal blue carbon ecosystems in the United States. The bill includes setting up an ​​Interagency Working Group on Coastal Blue Carbon, which would fall under the National Science and Technology Council’s Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology.

“Our oceans are in trouble: The coastal wetlands that make up the first line of defense against climate change are rapidly disappearing,” Whitehouse said in a statement. “Our bipartisan bill would help preserve the tidal marshes, mangroves, seagrasses, and kelp forests that provide a natural buffer to rising seas and absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

In Cispatá, the work of the mangleros is crucial to the success of the conservation project, which is managed by local organizations in partnership with community members. 

On that November morning, the trees marked by paint had tangled roots blocking the tidal flow into the forest and increasing the salinity of the water. Clearing them away enables the mangroves to continue sequestering carbon. 

“Then the mangrove goes on recovering,” explained manglero Eladio Prioló that morning. “Just like a human being needs medicine, it’s more or less the same thing.”

Their experience shows that while the science behind blue carbon is compelling, the process of certifying blue carbon projects on the offsets market is challenging, resource-intensive, and difficult to scale. 

The science behind blue carbon 

What we think of as traditional carbon offsets have been around for decades in terrestrial forests, but conserving and restoring coastal ecosystems to prevent blue carbon from being emitted into the atmosphere is relatively new. 

While oil companies have been studying coastal carbon since the 1950s to understand where oil reserves come from, research on blue carbon as a climate mitigation strategy started in the 1990s and then gained momentum in 2009, according to Steve Crooks, head of wetland science and coastal management at ​​Silvestrum Climate Associates.

Since then, investment and research into blue carbon offsets have been on the rise. There have been COP26 panels, international collaborations, and bills in the U.S. House and Senate. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Blue Natural Capital Financing Facility is looking at ways of monetizing coastal restoration projects all over the world. 

Experts estimate there are up to three dozen projects of sizable scale in various stages of development worldwide: Though most are in Latin America and Southeast Asia, there are some small pilot projects in China as well as a massive project in the works in Pakistan. 

Crooks and other blue carbon experts said this year’s COP26 was the first where they felt that blue carbon discussions have gained more attention, but there is still a long path to scaling, commercialization, and blue carbon applications becoming mainstream.

“We’re seeing a lot of discussions about financing, a lot of investing,” says Crooks, noting that investor interest is currently exceeding the number of projects available. 

Mangroves grow much faster than terrestrial forests and can sequester 10 times as much carbon. They also provide a buffer against storms, flooding, and coastal erosion. Blue ecosystems can contain millennia of carbon deposits, which is why protecting them from threats like logging, shrimp farming, and urban development is so important. 

Carbon offsets have suffered from criticism that it’s difficult to measure the volume of emissions avoided and to evaluate additionality—showing how conservation activity wouldn’t have happened without money from carbon credits. 

That’s why Cispatá proved such a natural choice for a blue carbon offset program: The location was selected in part because of its rich biodiversity and long history of conservation work in the area that provided a wealth of data. 

Cispatá had been in the crosshairs of development projects for decades before it was given special protected status in 2006, preventing it from being exploited or degraded, and local organizations have been working there for 30 years to protect the area’s mangroves. 

In 2020 they were certified to sell up to 68,000 carbon offsets after five years of analysis, aided by funding from Apple and Conservation International (CI), which found that in the next 30 years they would avoid nearly 1 million tons of carbon emissions by conserving the mangrove.

So far they have sold 20,000 offsets for an average of $15 each, notes Rafael Espinosa, ​​a marine biologist with the Regional Autonomous Corporation of the Sinú and San Jorge Valleys, the environmental authority in Córdoba province. This is a relatively high price on the market, where offsets typically go from less than $1 to $20, according to Amy Schmid, manager of blue carbon initiatives at Verra, an organization that certifies carbon emissions reductions.

Espinosa says the novelty of the project makes their offsets a type of upscale offering in auctions where they have sold to companies like Apple, Disney, and Patagonia. He estimates they have earned about $300,000 from the sales. With 40% going to audits and administration, that will leave about $180,000 for Vida Manglar, the Cispatá blue carbon collective that includes CI and other local organizations. 

But the organizations have yet to see any revenue from the carbon offset sales, which are still being processed and are expected to contribute to their community-based work as well as biodiversity, governance, and monitoring operations. 

Since much of the work of mangrove conservation is social in nature and hard to quantify, measuring success is tricky. Ensuring compliance requires continuous evaluation of satellite data to monitor rates of deforestation; tracking potential carbon loss; as well as field checks to evaluate the community-based work of the organizations. In this respect Cispatá also benefits from long-standing partnerships between the organizations that work there and the community—among them the mangleros who conduct both paid restoration and also sell a small certified amount of sustainably extracted mangrove wood. 

This cooperation with the mangleros and other community members is key to the project’s success. Organizations have also partnered with former crocodile hunters to help them transition to conservation work, and have contributed to ecotourism and beekeeping projects as alternative industries.  

Ignacia de la Rosa Perez, a Córdoba native who has won awards for her lifelong work protecting the region’s mangroves, collaborates with Vida Manglar and has been part of the blue carbon discussions. 

Better incentives

While the volume of research is mounting, monetization and scale are less straightforward.

Crooks of Silvestrum Climate Associates says the Blue Carbon for Our Planet bill could provide a good foundation for blue carbon conservation and restoration in the U.S. if passed. But he pointed out that high land costs in the U.S. make it difficult to enact financially sustainable projects, noting that this could change if the price of carbon increases as some anticipate.  

“There’s the realization that we’re not reducing our emissions fast enough. We’re seeing some big players come in, the oil and gas industry either looking to buy offsets for their operations, or they’re seeing themselves as investors,” he says. “They’ve seen the price of carbon going up to potentially over $100 per tonne within 10 years. And they think they need to get in now.”

One of the major criticisms of carbon offsets is their failure to address the incentive structure at the root of the carbon-based economy and the potential that carbon emitters will feel they can wash their hands of the damage they’ve done by buying offsets instead of reducing emissions. 

Crooks notes that it’s important not to let carbon polluters off the hook by buying offsets, but that those offsets are necessary in the interim. 

Even if many of the initiatives remain in early stages, the tide is turning with a growing number of lawmakers and private initiatives seeing potential in blue carbon.

“This is an important initiative even if it’s mostly about studying the opportunity,” says Terry Tamminen, a former secretary of the California EPA and president of 7th Generation Advisors, of the new blue carbon bill introduced by U.S. lawmakers. “Two-thirds of the planet is the ocean. We have changed its chemistry with all of the CO2 we have pumped into the atmosphere that it has absorbed, so it’s time we start understanding how to harness that power for good instead of destroying the ecosystem our lives depend on.”

This story is part of The Path to Zero, a series of special reports on how business can lead the fight against climate change. This quarter’s report highlights how governments and private industry are approaching the biggest challenges and opportunities in the sustainability space.