Engaging blue carbon: A climate solution in context

By Abhishek Patil and CH. Praveen Kumar

Illustration credits: Megha Vishwanath and Current Conservation
As climate change captures global attention with its tragic and dramatic consequences, a proposed solution is gathering momentum – blue carbon. What makes this idea both promising and tricky at once? We present a brief account of this alluring concept and what it means for India’s coasts.
Blue carbon refers to the carbon captured and stored by coastal and marine ecosystems such as mangrove forests, tidal marshes, and seagrass meadows. Although this idea has been around for a while, it gained prominence in a 2009 report of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). This report highlighted the immense role of blue carbon ecosystems (BCEs) as significant carbon sinks, capturing and storing carbon at much higher rates than many terrestrial ecosystems. For example, mangroves can ‘bury’ carbon at an impressive rate of 226 grams per square metre per year, with salt marshes and seagrasses not far behind at 218 grams and 138 grams per square metre per year, respectively. By comparison, terrestrial ecosystems like temperate and tropical forests have much lower average carbon burial rates of 5.1 grams and 4 grams, respectively, per square metre per year. These numbers are deeply compelling, as is the desperation for climate solutions.
Since the UNEP report, the science and application of BCEs has grown, drawing the attention of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which saw tremendous value for blue carbon in meeting the goals of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In 2013, the IPCC released a supplementary report offering a comprehensive framework for quantifying carbon stocks in coastal wetlands. It involves mapping the area of each ecosystem, estimating total biomass, and calculating the total carbon stock using various conversion factors. With recent advancements in remote sensing technologies, these assessments have become even more accurate.
The 2005 Kyoto Protocol aimed at limiting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through mechanisms like International Emissions Trading (IET), the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and Joint Implementation. Under these frameworks, countries set emission reduction targets, with developed nations funding developing countries’ emission reduction activities. This system has led to a booming carbon credits market, valued at $19 billion, operating in both compliance markets (markets regulated and mandated by law) and voluntary markets (semi-regulated but not mandated by law) that offer carbon credits in exchange for emission reduction services. 
The Kyoto Protocol mainly targeted legally mandated emissions reductions by developed countries, with specific timeframes for achieving these reductions. The Paris Agreement of 2015, removed legal mandates, but demanded accountability and responsibility from all nations to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degree celsius above pre-industrial levels. Countries were now expected  to set their own policies to reduce GHG emissions. Several countries including the USA, Australia and China have established their own compliance carbon markets. Recently, India introduced its Carbon Credit Trading Scheme (CCTC) in another push to manage booming carbon markets and achieve net-zero emissions by 2070.
Despite India’s carbon sequestration potential, the country’s Long-Term Low-Carbon Development Strategy submitted to the UNFCCC overlooks the role of blue carbon. This omission could on the one hand hinder the reduction of carbon emissions and on the other promote unfair and unscientific on-ground practices. Integrating blue carbon into national climate policies is crucial, not only for its sequestration capabilities but also for steering the developmental co-benefits such mitigation efforts ought to provide to developing countries. This requires greater investment, policy support and financial incentives for blue carbon conservation and restoration programmes. However, it is important to recognise the potential socio-economic impacts of blue carbon initiatives, which might restrict coastal communities’ access to resources and livelihood activities, necessitate displacement and relocation, and disrupt cultural practices. Hence, a community-centric, justice-based policy approach is necessary. The justice and equity-related challenges have given rise to a new sub-field that explores ‘blue-justice’ in relation to climate solutions such as harnessing blue carbon. 
Dakshin actively promotes diverse and credible knowledge pathways and on-ground actions that engage the potential and diversity of solutions from India to tackle climate change. Our approach is rooted in community engagement, and we emphatically support policy frameworks that prioritise justice and inclusivity, recognising their role in strengthening blue carbon initiatives at scale. We have embarked on a comprehensive ‘Ocean Solutions’ approach through which Dakshin aims to bridge critical knowledge gaps and develop pragmatic nature-based solutions that address marine resource degradation and enhance community well-being. A key initiative includes the creation of a dynamic Blue Carbon Atlas of India to map and monitor the country’s blue carbon ecosystems using interdisciplinary and inclusive scientific protocols. This will prevent applying blue carbon solutions where they are inappropriate, but will also set the social, ecological and legal conditions under which they will work. A second, twin initiative involves the establishment of a Blue Economy Enterprises (BEE) Hive to incubate, and support  sustainable and equitable income-generation interventions, including (but not limited to) blue carbon-based enterprises. Dakshin also runs diverse but climate-related projects that aim to engage local communities in participatory monitoring of reef-to-rainforest ecosystems, and build grassroots capacities for climate action and conservation. This ties in with our engagement on blue carbon and involves collaborating with communities, government bodies, and interdisciplinary teams of experts to develop region-specific solutions, promote climate literacy, and integrate local ecological knowledge into conservation efforts. Under such a healthy rubric of democracy-in-action, blue carbon stands a fair chance at making the cut.