Healthy oceans new key to combating climate change

Action needed to maintain and restore 'blue carbon' sinks warn three UN agencies
October 15, 2009

Healthy oceans new key to combating climate change

A 'Blue Carbon' fund able to invest in the maintenance and rehabilitation of key marine ecosystems should be considered by governments keen to combat climate change.

A new Rapid Response Report estimates that carbon emissions -equal to half the annual emissions of the global transport sector -are being captured and stored by marine ecosystems such as mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses.

A combination of reducing deforestation on land, allied to restoring the coverage and health of these marine ecosystems could deliver up to 25 percent of the emissions reductions needed to avoid ‘dangerous' climate change.

But the report, produced by three United Nations agencies and leading scientists and launched during National Marine Month in South Africa, warns that far from maintaining and enhancing these natural carbon sinks humanity is damaging and degrading them at an accelerating rate.

It estimates that up to seven per cent of these ‘blue carbon sinks' are being lost annually or seven times the rate of loss of 50 years ago.

"If more action is not taken to sustain these vital ecosystems, most may be lost within two decades," says the report Blue Carbon: the Role of Healthy Oceans in Binding Carbon launched by the UN Environment Program (UNEP), the ÚN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "We already know that marine ecosystems are multi-trillion dollar assets linked to sectors such as tourism, coastal defense, fisheries and water purification services-now it is emerging that they are natural allies against climate change".

"Indeed this report estimates that halting losses and catalyzing the recovery of marine ecosystems might contribute to offsetting up to seven per cent of current fossil fuel emissions and at a fraction of the costs of technologies to capture and store carbon at power stations," he added.

The new report comes less than 60 days before the crucial UN climate change convention meeting in Copenhagen where governments need to Seal the Deal on a comprehensive new agreement.

It is likely that nations will agree to pay developing economies to maintain the ‘green carbon' in forests under a partnership-Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD).

Mr Steiner added: "The links between deforestation and climate change are firmly on the political radar and there is optimism that REDD will form part of a new global climate partnership-but the role and the opportunity presented by other ecosystems are still overlooked".

"If the world is to decisively deal with climate change, every source of emissions and every option for reducing these should be scientifically evaluated and brought to the international community's attention-that should include all the colours of carbon including now blue carbon linked with the seas and oceans".

Dr Carlos Duarte, one of the chief scientists of the report based at the Mediterranean Institute of Advanced Studies in Spain, said:" We know that land use change is part of the climate change challenge. Perhaps less well known is that the global loss of what we could call our "Blue carbon sinks' such as mangroves and seagrasses are actually among the key components of the increase in greenhouse concentrations from all land use changes".

Christian Nellemann, Editor of the Rapid Response report, said." There is an urgency to act now to maintain and enhance these carbon sinks-since the 1940s, over 30 per cent of mangroves; close to 25 per cent of salt marshes and over 30 per cent of seagrass meadows have been lost. We are losing these crucial ecosystems much faster than rainforests and at the very time we need them - on current trends they may be all largely lost within a couple of decades".

"Fishing and aquaculture communities will be heavily impacted by climate change and have a key role to play in maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems in the face of change," said Ichiro Nomura, Assistant Director-General for Fisheries and Aquaculture at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

"An ecosystem approach to the management of ocean and coastal areas can not only enhance their natural carbon sink capacity, but also offers a way to safeguard and strengthen food and livelihood security for fisheries-dependent communities," he added.

Officials with UNESCO also underlined the important role the oceans are already playing in offsetting climate change and its impacts on humanity, but warn that this is having consequences too.

"Because the ocean has already absorbed 82 percent of the total additional energy accumulated in the planet due to global warming, it is fair to say that the ocean has already spared us from dangerous climate change," says Patricio Bernal, Assistant Director-General of UNESCO, IOC Executive Secretary. "But each day we are essentially dumping 25 million tons of carbon into the ocean. As a consequence, the ocean is turning more acidic, posing a huge threat to organisms with calcareous structures."

Luciano Fonseca of UNESCO-IOC explains that the ocean's absorption of the planet's excess heat "is like a glass of whisky with ice. As long as the ice is there the whisky stays cool. The energy that is going into the glass, from your hand and room temperature, is working to convert the ice to liquid. As soon as the ice melts the whisky turns warm."

Download the report [PDF]