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Apple, Conservation International introduce mangrove carbon credit

Mangroves have massive carbon sequestration potential, 10 times more than traditional forests, and companies are jumping on board to save them.

Boat in a mangrove

Mangroves can store up to 10 times as much carbon as terrestrial forests. 

There’s a fresh nature-based carbon project in town, and she’s getting attention from corporations with ambitious net-zero goals. Her name? Mangroves, a type of tree species and coastal forest ecosystem native to the tropics and subtropics. 

Blue carbon, carbon captured by oceans or the ecosystems surrounding oceans, has huge untapped potential for carbon sequestration and Verra, the verified carbon standard, told Yale360 that the blue carbon market is about to take off. According to the article, Verra has issued 970,000 credits to blue carbon projects. And mangroves projects are poised to increase dramatically as they have become trendy with with big companies with ambitious carbon initiatives. Over the past year, Gucci, Apple and Procter & Gamble have announced mangrove protection and restoration projects to help combat greenhouse gas emissions. 

In July, P&G partnered with Conservation International on the Philippines Palawan Protection Project, which will safeguard 31 species of mangroves almost 110,000 acres of forests on the Philippines' largest island. 

At the start of 2021, Gucci unveiled the Muskitia Blue Carbon REDD+ project to protect 12,350 acres of mangroves in Honduras. And Apple, also working in conjunction with Conservation International, is working to preserve a 27,000-acre mangrove forest in Colombia. According to Conservation International, this project is also the site of the first fully accounted carbon offset credit for a mangrove.

Why are mangroves important?

Mangroves are massive carbon sinks — between four and 10 times as much carbon can be sequestered by mangroves as compared to terrestrial forests, according to Conservation International.

"At a high level, [mangroves] are salty and wet, and that keeps the carbon from breaking down," said Jen Howard, senior director of Conservation International’s blue carbon program. 

The salty water keeps the organic material from producing methane as it decomposes, and the mangrove tree’s complex root systems catch sediment from upstream and keep it in place, reducing carbon dioxide emissions. There’s also a resilience benefit: Mangrove roots can dramatically reduce erosion and act as a buffer during hurricanes and storms absorbing destructive waves and winds. A study from UC Santa Cruz found mangroves prevent more than $65 billion in property damage each year by protecting against storm surges. Beyond that, mangroves are magnificent hubs of biodiversity — homes for fish, crabs, birds and hundreds of plant species. 

"Where else do you find tigers and manatees in the same habitat?" asked Karen Douthwaite, lead specialist for the oceans program at the World Wildlife Fund. "No, you don’t get that very often."

But we have lost a lot of mangroves over the past 40 years. From the 1980s to the early 2000s, 20 percent of the world’s mangroves disappeared, driven by expansion related to tourism development, agriculture and aquaculture, pollution and climate change. That rate has slowed recently to about 2 percent lost each year, according to a 2018 study in Nature. 

Why are we losing mangroves?

The reasons we are losing mangroves are unique, and unlike many factors contributing to forest loss elsewhere. Saving them also requires different tactics. While terrestrial forests are at risk from logging, timber production and wildfires, mangroves are much more dependent on the water systems around them. The hydrology of the area is extremely important to the success of the mangrove. 

"You have to consider both what is happening on the coast where you find [mangroves], but also you need to look upstream," Douthwaite said. 

According to her, an infrastructure development inland could be interrupting the flow of sediment and water to the grove or a farm could be releasing toxic pollution upstream that is affecting the mangroves downstream. Both present dangers to mangroves. 

You have to consider both what is happening on the coast where you find [mangroves], but also you need to look upstream.

Sea level rises and urban development cause what experts call a "squeeze." Normally, if the water levels rise, mangroves can move inland and build up sediment vertically so the habitat remains at the right ratio of underwater to above water presence. In fact, normally, sea-level rises actually would increase the amount of carbon stored by mangroves. But if the mangrove is trapped between increasing ocean levels and human development, the mangrove has nowhere to go and ends up entirely underwater, effectively squeezed out of existence. 

What’s more, unprecedented cold temperatures in tropical regions can lead to mass mangrove loss, as they are highly sensitive to freezes. According to Jon Dale, senior manager for forest restoration in the lower Rio Grande Valley for American Forests, Texas lost most of its mangroves in the 1980s due to an unprecedented dip in temperatures. These types of cold events are happening more frequently due to climate change and need to be considered in mangrove restoration projects. 

Capital in the form of carbon offsets can help protect the mangroves we have left and propagate new ones, but issuing them needs to be done with robust science, according to experts including Tiffany Troxler, an associate professor in the earth and environment department at Florida International University and consultant for Carbon Direct, a carbon offset project developer, and Howard. 

"We’re trying to get those [mangrove] projects to be capable of producing carbon offsets," Troxler said "But often what isn’t as available is the rigorous monitoring and verification that needs to be done to ensure that you’re getting the carbon that you’re trying to bank."

Apple and Conservation International have taken the first stab at doing just that. 

Mangrove Trees

Mangroves have become a trendy new investment for companies like Proctor and Gamble, Gucci and Apple.

Conservation International

The newest carbon credit on the block 

Today, Conservation International announced that a mangrove along the coast in Cispatá, Colombia, is the first to have its carbon stores fully accounted for with a new credit developed specifically to address the unique carbon sequestration potential of mangroves. Before today, mangroves were still part of the carbon offset market, but they were evaluated using terrestrial forest methods that undercounted the carbon stored in the mangrove’s roots and soil, where 60 percent of the carbon value lies, according to Howard. 

"The technique for measuring the carbon [in mangrove soil] has been around for a long time; it just wasn’t integrated into these processes to make it a financial mechanism," she said. "What needed to happen was to take all of the science and then translate it into a structure that would allow for financial benefit."

The two-year project in Cispatá was funded in collaboration with Apple to push forward innovative blue carbon solutions. The mangrove covers more than 29,000 acres, and Conservation International has a goal of removing 1 million metric tons of emissions over the next 30 years for the Cispatá project. A small portion of the carbon credits produced by this project will be retired in Apple’s name, but according to Howard, most of Apple's funding was part of a philanthropic donation.

"The best climate solutions take their lead from local communities and the ecosystems — like mangrove forests — that are crucial to the health of our planet,” said Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives in an email. “In partnership with Conservation International and indigenous communities in Colombia, we’re excited to carry forward our fight against climate change, find innovative ways to measure the ‘blue carbon’ we remove from our atmosphere, and create pathways for other businesses to join Apple in our work to become 100 percent carbon neutral.”

Besides having more capacity for carbon storage, there are other ways mangroves and the resulting carbon credits differ from traditional forestry credits. 

"I think where we run into issues is when a terrestrial approach is applied to a coastal system," Howard said. "Then you end up with less-than-ideal restoration projects." 

Unlike forests, restoring hydrology is integral to restoring the mangrove, and this process can be expensive. Project developers may have to look for possible infrastructure and obstructions upstream, and engage the stakeholders miles away from the mangrove to restore the water flow. But once they do, a lot of intense and expensive tree planting isn’t necessary for a mangrove project. 

"Oftentimes, if you’re just setting up the right conditions," Douthwaite said, "the mangroves can sort of effectively restore themselves. But if that river system isn’t in place, then you might restore the mangroves, but without the sediment coming down and being deposited, it’s just not going to work."

Once the hydrology has been restored and the mangrove is spending the optimal amount of time under the water, propagules, the long pointy part of the mangrove that contains the seeds and that detach to propagate new mangrove trees, can be collected and thrown overboard. They will root themselves. 

Like with any carbon credit, the three keywords are additionality, permanence and leakage. According to Howard, because we are losing coastal ecosystems at such a fast rate and restoring them at such a low rate, any restoration of mangroves should be considered additional. Leakage is also not as much of a concern, according to Troxler, because mangroves are not as vulnerable to forest fires, disease outbreaks and competing commercialization as terrestrial forests. 

Permanence is where mangroves and mangrove credits see the biggest risk. If a carbon credit restores a mangrove that is trapped between sea-level rise and coastal development, all that work can be squeezed out of existence. And historic freezing temperatures that are becoming more common due to climate change also can wipe out an entire mangrove project overnight. 

Pricing is another area where mangrove credits will differ from terrestrial forests. Conservation International plans to sell its mangrove carbon credits anywhere from $12 to $20 a ton. According to a report from Ecosystems Marketplace, an initiative from The Forest Trends Association, traditional forestry and land use credits cost an average of $5.92 in North America for a metric ton of CO2 removed.

The money raised from the Cispatá will be collected in a centralized fund and distributed by a panel of local authorities with consultation from Conservation International. 

"It’s very high quality carbon," Howard said. "It also comes with an additional certification called CCB, the community climate and biodiversity certification, because of the endangered species that we’re working with. And so combined, it’s the very first blue carbon credit to have this additional certification. We produce a premium product."

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