Environmental and Energy Study Institute: New Act Highlights Little-Known Pathway to Absorb Carbon Emissions

The Blue Carbon for Our Planet Act (H.R.5589/S.3939) draws attention to a little-known—but critically important—pathway to absorb carbon emissions: coastal wetland ecosystems that act as carbon sinks, otherwise known as “blue carbon” ecosystems.

Blue carbon ecosystems, which include mangroves, marshes, and seagrass, store disproportionately large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) but are increasingly under threat. A blue carbon ecosystem acts as a highly effective carbon sink because wetland plants absorb carbon rapidly and transfer it to the soil below, where it can be stored for up to several thousand years. New layers of soil accumulate relatively quickly, allowing for further plant growth and carbon sequestration. Thanks to these unique processes, blue carbon ecosystems can sequester carbon at concentrations up to five times greater than that of forests. Unfortunately, as human development along coasts has accelerated, these ecosystems have been increasingly degraded or lost. Today, roughly 44 percent of the global population lives within 150 kilometers of a coast. Researchers estimate that about 450 million tons of CO2 are released each year from degraded wetlands, an amount greater than the national emissions of Australia in 2016.

When intact, coastal ecosystems also serve as critical protection for the communities living behind them. EESI’s fact sheet, Nature as Resilient Infrastructure, notes that coastal wetlands provide an estimated $23.2 billion in storm protection across the United States annually. For many locations along the Gulf of Mexico, wetland and reef restoration have been found to save $7 in “flood reduction benefits” for every $1 spent on restoration.

The Blue Carbon for Our Planet Act was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and in the House by Rep. Bonamici (D-Ore.) and nine original co-sponsors. The legislation aims to fill knowledge gaps and better target conservation and restoration efforts to preserve blue carbon ecosystems that provide both mitigation and adaptation benefits.

The legislation would create a coastal blue carbon interagency working group, which would fall under the National Science and Technology Council’s Subcommittee on Ocean, Science, and Technology. This working group would be charged with mapping all coastal blue carbon ecosystems, maintaining continuity of data on coastal blue carbon, and filling research gaps as well as establishing priorities for restoration. Fifteen agencies would be included in the working group, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Department of Transportation (DOT).

With a focus on data collection and maintenance, the legislation creates a pathway to build out the information needed to understand and protect these vital coastal ecosystems. For example, the mapping exercise would not only identify all coastal blue carbon ecosystems, but would also explore the risks to those ecosystems, their vulnerability to climate impacts, and their co-benefits. Using these maps, decisionmakers, from resource managers to city planners, could identify priority ecosystems and develop strategies for conservation and restoration.

The bill also states that the National Academy of Sciences should conduct studies to fill knowledge gaps on carbon sequestration in a deep seafloor environment and on carbon markets. Carbon markets in the land use sector have a fraught history, so the bill's call to focus research in this area is critical. In particular, the bill suggests attention be paid to “research, data, resource management, monitoring, reporting, and verification improvements necessary to develop a carbon market around coastal macroalgae cultivation and sustainable coastal wetlands management or restorations; and relevant successes and failures of carbon markets in agriculture, forestry, and wetlands and how such successes and failures might apply to a future coastal carbon market.”

Introduced on a bipartisan basis, the Blue Carbon for Our Planet Act has garnered support from a wide range of organizations, including the Ocean Conservancy, Audubon Society, and American Conservation Coalition. Understanding, restoring, and protecting ecosystems that provide a mitigation-adaptation "double whammy" is clearly a step forward with broad appeal.

By:  Anna McGinn and Joseph Glandorf
Source: Environmental and Energy Study Institute