Options for Blue Carbon within the International Climate Change Framework

Author:Gabriel Grimsditch
Position:Is a program officer with the United Nations Environment Programme ('UNEP') Marine and Coastal Ecosystems Branch based in Nairobi, Kenya and specializes in climate change and oceans
WINTER 2011 22
The concept of “Blue Carbon,” or atmospheric carbon
captured by coastal ecosystems, has recently been the
focus of reports by the United Nations Environment
Programme (“UNEP”) and the International Union for the Con-
servation of Nature (“IUCN”).1 The international community is
increasingly interested in exploring the potential of conserving
coastal ecosystems for their role in climate change mitigation,
reflected in the Manado Oceans Declaration signed by countries
in 2009 which recognizes that “healthy and productive coastal
ecosystems, already increasingly stressed by land-based and
sea-based sources of pollution, coastal development, and habitat
destruction, have a growing role in mitigating the effects of cli-
mate change on coastal communities and economies in the near
term”2 and “invite[s] the scientific community/institutions to
continue developing reliable scientific information on the roles
of coastal wetlands, mangrove, algae, seagrass, and coral reef
ecosystems in reducing the effects of climate change.”3
The 2009 UNEP “Blue Carbon” report noted that fifty-five
percent of atmospheric carbon captured by living organisms
is captured by marine organisms and between fifty to seventy-
one percent of that is captured by ocean vegetated habitats (e.g.
mangroves, salt marshes, seagrasses, seaweed), which account
for less than 0.5% of the seabed.4 The report states that coastal
vegetated habitats sequester between 114 and 328 teragrams
(“Tg”) of carbon per year, or 1.6 to 4.6% of total anthropo-
genic emissions (7,200 Tg per year).5 Furthermore, the report
found that between two and seven percent of these marine and
coastal ecosystems are lost annually6—one of the highest rates
of loss amongst all ecosystems.7 Because of their high carbon
sequestration potential, there is a growing interest in exploring
the potential of including Blue Carbon in existing and emerg-
ing climate change frameworks.8 However, considerable uncer-
tainty surrounds these estimates and the level of understanding
of carbon storage in coastal ecosystems.
Several opportunities for Blue Carbon exist within the
United Nations Climate Change Framework (“UNFCCC”). The
UNFCCC is an international environmental treaty with a goal of
the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmo-
sphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic9
interference with the climate system.”10 The UNFCCC includes
coastal and marine ecosystems in Article 4(d), which states that
all parties shall “promote sustainable management, and pro-
mote and cooperate in the conservation and enhancement, as
appropriate, of sinks and reservoirs of all GHG not controlled
by the Montreal Protocol, including . . . oceans as well as other
. . . coastal and marine ecosystems.”11 However, the current
UNFCCC processes does not include adequate measures for
protection and restoration of Blue Carbon ecosystems as a cli-
mate change mitigation strategy, and this represents a missed
opportunity in our global portfolio of options for combating cli-
mate change.
Countries that have signed the UNFCCC are obligated to
submit annual National Inventory Submissions (“NIS”); these
inventory submissions record the country’s greenhouse gas
emissions from anthropogenic activity, as well as sequestration
from land use and forestry, based on guidance from the Inter-
governmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”).12 Within
the NIS, there is a section on Land Use, Land-Use Change and
Forestry (“LULUCF”) that accounts for the carbon budget (i.e.
emissions and reductions) due to the management of terrestrial
ecosystems including forests, peatlands, grasslands, and agricul-
tural wetlands.13 In this section, only the carbon sequestered or
emitted due to direct human management of ecosystems can be
included.14 However, unmanaged ecosystems are not accounted
for.15 Blue Carbon ecosystems—whether managed or not—
are not accounted for under LULUCF and thus, not included
in the UNFCCC.16 The IPCC should amend their guidance on
LULUCF in order to include Blue Carbon ecosystems under
LULUCF and UNFCCC processes. Moreover, management of
coastal and wetland ecosystems should be defined as an activ-
ity under LULUCF. The IPCC operates based on peer-reviewed
science and therefore, the current scientific gaps in knowledge
regarding carbon fluxes,17 need to first be addressed in the peer-
reviewed literature. In order for Blue Carbon ecosystems to be
included in the wider UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol processes,
an important step would be to have Blue Carbon ecosystems
fully embedded and accounted for in the LULUCF process.
by Gabriel Grimsditch*
* Gabriel Grimsditch is a program officer with the United Nations Environment
Programme (“UNEP”) Marine and Coastal Ecosystems Branch based in Nairobi,
Kenya and specializes in climate change and oceans. Before joining UNEP, Gabriel
worked for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (“IUCN”) Global
Marine Program where he was based in Mombasa, Kenya. He has published vari-
ous peer-reviewed articles and institutional reports on marine and climate change
issues. Two of his latest publications, Blue Carbon and The Management Of Natural
Coastal Carbon Sinks have helped create international interest in the role coastal
and marine ecosystems play in the global carbon cycle. Gabriel obtained a BSc from
Manchester University and an MSc from University College London. He is a dual
citizen of the United Kingdom and Spain. The opinions expressed in this paper are
those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of UNEP. Address:
United Nations Environment Programme, PO Box 30552-00100, Nairobi, Kenya.
Email: gabriel.grimsditch@unep.org. Tel: +254 20 762 4124.
Although the UNFCCC is legally non-binding, the Kyoto
Protocol (“Protocol”) adopted in 1997 commits industrialized
countries to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases, carbon
dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and sulfur hexafluoride by at
least five percent from 1990 levels.18 The Protocol includes flex-
ible mechanisms such as emissions trading and offsets for indus-
trialized countries, known as the clean development mechanism
(“CDM”), which allows the nation to meet its emission reduc-
tions obligations by funding carbon capture in developing coun-
tries.19 Blue Carbon projects could potentially become an offset
category for CDM projects and—although presently standard-
ized—UNFCCC-approved methodologies do not exist for estab-
lishing project baselines and monitoring results.20 UNFCCC
criteria would have to be amended to include Blue Carbon proj-
ects under the CDM in the form of protection or rehabilitation of
coastal ecosystems. However, as discussed above, appropriate
methodologies would have to be developed and approved.
In addition to the CDM, under the 2009 Copenhagen
Accord, developing countries agreed to report Nationally
Appropriate Mitigation Actions (“NAMAs”) to the UNFCCC
every two years; such mitigation actions are monitored domesti-
cally.21 NAMAs refer to a set of policies and actions countries
undertake as part of a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions, recognizing that various countries may engage in
different actions based on equity, and in accordance with their
respective responsibilities and capabilities.22 Presently, NAMAs
include, for example, investments in alternative energy or in
reducing illegal logging, but not Blue Carbon projects.23 There
is potential to expand NAMAs to include protection and resto-
ration of Blue Carbon ecosystems, but as discussed previously,
an international standard approved by the UNFCCC needs to be
developed and applied to Blue Carbon.
Furthermore, the Reducing Emissions from Deforesta-
tion and Forest Degradation (“REDD”) program within the
UNFCCC presents another opportunity for Blue Carbon eco-
system protection. This program aims to create financial incen-
tives to reduce forest destruction and degradation, thus reducing
emissions and maintaining sequestration.24 REDD+ is a pro-
gram defined under the Cancun Agreement as including activi-
ties such as “(a) Reducing emissions from deforestation; (b)
Reducing emissions from forest degradation; (c) Conservation
of forest carbon stocks; (d) Sustainable management of forest[s];
[and] (e) Enhancement of forest carbon stocks.”25 REDD+ car-
bon credits would allow funding from industrialized countries to
reduce deforestation and rehabilitate degraded forests in devel-
oping countries.26 After the decision in Cancun at the Sixteenth
Session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC, it is
clear that mangroves are eligible for REDD+27 funding,28 yet
their full potential has not yet been realized by countries. Again,
standardized protocols for measurement, reporting, and verifica-
tion (“MRV”) and monitoring of carbon sequestration and car-
bon emissions due to habitat degradation need to be developed
and approved by appropriate international bodies, such as the
Voluntary Carbon Standard (“VCS”).29 Pilot projects exploring
the feasibility of mangroves under REDD+, are currently being
developed by non-governmental organizations and national gov-
ernments in REDD countries around the world.30
While opportunities exist, for Blue Carbon to be included in
any of these UNFCCC frameworks certain preconditions need
to be met. First, the science has to be robust, and adequate peer-
reviewed evidence must exist to make a compelling case for the
IPCC or the UNFCCC to amend their guidelines. This includes
the development of standardized and internationally approved
methodologies for MRV of carbon sequestration and emissions
from habitat degradation. Additionally, an adequate level of
understanding of carbon fluxes and their response to manage-
ment in and around Blue Carbon ecosystems is necessary for
the IPCC to include the coastal ecosystems in their Assessment
Reports. The evidence is mounting that Blue Carbon ecosystems
are an important part of the global carbon cycle, and that their
destruction releases dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases
into the atmosphere.31 Secondly, Blue Carbon projects need to
demonstrate “additionality” (the project must demonstrate that
the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions through the protec-
tion or rehabilitation of Blue Carbon ecosystems would not have
happened without the sale of Blue Carbon offsets),32 “minimal
leakage” (the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by the Blue
Carbon project does not cause an equivalent increase in emis-
sions by another entity),33 and “permanence” (minimizing the
risk that greenhouse gas emissions will occur after the Blue Car-
bon project has been sold as a carbon offset).34 Finally, the third
precondition for the success of Blue Carbon projects and accep-
tance under the UNFCCC and other international climate frame-
works is a feasible economic model, which actually generates
revenue from the Blue Carbon project. The revenue generated
by carbon credits sold in the carbon markets must be higher than
the cost of protecting or restoring the Blue Carbon ecosystems.
Economic feasibility studies need to be undertaken which exam-
ine the total revenue from carbon sequestered (including carbon
fluxes), the total value of ecosystem services associated with
Blue Carbon ecosystems, the total direct costs of protection or
rehabilitation of Blue Carbon ecosystems, and the total opportu-
nity costs associated with the project (e.g. loss of revenue from
lost coastal development opportunities).
The fact that Blue Carbon ecosystems such as mangroves,
sea grass, salt marsh, and seaweed are currently largely over-
looked by the UNFCCC, CDM, and other international climate
frameworks represents a missed opportunity in our global port-
folio for mitigating climate change through ecosystem man-
agement. The UNFCCC does provide appropriate frameworks
and opportunities to include Blue Carbon in the global climate
change debate, and a growing community of UN agencies, non-
governmental organizations, research institutions, civil society
WINTER 2011 24
groups, and national governments are forwarding the agenda
for this change to occur. Crucial steps include the develop-
ment and standardization of MRV protocols in order to monitor
the success of pilot Blue Carbon projects, as well as the con-
tinued amassing of evidence and understanding of the role of
Blue Carbon ecosystems in the global carbon cycle, including
the effects of anthropogenic management on their greenhouse
gas sequestration or emissions. This peer-reviewed evidence
should be presented to the IPCC and be used to drive changes
in guidelines so that Blue Carbon ecosystems are included in the
NIS and LULUCF processes and thus, into the wider UNFCCC
framework. The potential of Blue Carbon is clear; it is now a
matter of expediting this process in international frameworks
before we lose even more of these precious ecosystems.
HEALTHY OCEANS IN BINDING CARBON (Christian Nellemann et al. eds., 2009)
[hereinafter Nellemann], http://www.unep.org/pdf/BlueCarbon_screen_english.
2 World Ocean Conference, Manado, Indon., May 11-14, 2009, Manado
Ocean Declaration 2 (May 14, 2009), http://www.cep.unep.org/news-and-
3 Id. at 3.
4 Nellemann, supra note 1.
5 Id.
6 Id.
7 Id. at 7.
MENT OF NATURAL COASTAL CARBON SINKS (Dan Laffoley & Gabriel Grimsditch
eds., 2009), http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/2009-038.pdf.
9 Anthropogenic, MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTIONARY ONLINE, http://www.
merriam-webster.com/dictionary/anthropogenic?show=0&t=1296266491 (last
visited Feb. 5, 2011).
10 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change art. 2, May 9,
1992, 1771 U.N.T.S. 107, http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/convkp/conveng.pdf.
11 Id. art. 4.
12 Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF), UNITED NATIONS
FRAMEWORK ON CLIMATE CHANGE, http://unfccc.int/methods_and_science/lulucf/
items/3060.php (last visited Feb. 5, 2011).
USE CHANGE AND FORESTRY (Robert T. Watson et al. eds., 2000), http://www.
GAS EMISSIONS AND SINKS: 1990-2007, at 7-1 (2009), http://unfccc.int/files/
15 Id.
16 Id.
17 Defining “carbonflux” as “the net difference between carbon removal
[sequestration] and carbon addition [(e.g. from emissions due to habitat deg-
radation) in Blue Carbon ecosystems] . . . .” See CARBONFLUX, http://www.
carbonflux.co.uk (last visited Mar. 10, 2011).
18 Kyoto Protocol to the United National Framework Convention on Climate
Change, Dec. 10, 1997, 37 I.L.M 22, http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/convkp/
19 Id.
http://unfccc.int/methods_science/redd/methodologies/items/4538.php (last vis-
ited Feb. 5, 2011).
21 Conference of the Parties Fifteenth Session, Copenhagen, Den., Dec. 7-18,
2009, Copenhagen Accord, U.N. Doc. FCCC/CP/2009/L.7 (Dec. 18, 2009),
22 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Bali, Indon.,
Dec. 3-15, 2007, Dec. 1/CP.13 Bali Action Plan, in Rep. of the Conf. of the
Parties on its thirteenth sess., U.N. Doc. FCCC/CP/2007/6/ Add.1 (Dec. 2007),
23 See ENB on the Side: A Special Report on Selected Side Events at the Can-
cun Climate Change Conference, INTL INST. FOR SUSTAINABLE DEV., Dec. 2,
2010, at 1, http://www.iisd.ca/climate/cop16/enbots/pdf/enbots1290e.pdf.
24 UN-REDD PROGRAMME, http://www.un-redd.org (last visited Feb. 5, 2011).
25 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Outcome of the
Work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the
Convention, U.N. Doc. FCCC/AWGLCA/2010/L.7 (Oct. 10, 2010) [hereinafter
AWG-LCA], http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2010/awglca13/eng/l07.pdf.
26 Id.
27 REDD+ is a program going beyond REDD in the valuation of carbon stored
forests. It includes conservation, enhancement of carbon stocks, and the sus-
tainable management of forests. See About REDD+, UN-REDD PROGRAMME,
http://www.un-redd.org/AboutREDD/tabid/582/Default.aspx (last visited Feb.
5, 2011).
28 See AWG-LCA, supra note 25.
29 VCS Methodology Approval, VOLUNTARY CARBON STANDARD (2005), http://
30 Steve Zwick & Hannah Kett, Conservationists Endorse Plan to Fold Man-
groves into REDD+ Talks, ECOSYSTEM MARKETPLACE, Dec. 2, 2010, http://
COASTAL CARBON SINKS 53 (Dan Laffoley & Gabriel Grimsditch eds., 2009),
32 Roger Ullman, Vasco Bilbao & Gabriel Grimsditch, Factors For Inclusion
of Blue Carbon in Climate Frameworks, in OCEAN AND COASTAL MANAGEMENT
(forthcoming Oct. 2011).
33 Id.
34 Id.
Endnotes: Options for Blue Carbon within the International Climate
Change Framework