New partnerships that can protect coastal ecosystems are emerging

The issue has, of course, not gone unnoticed. U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 14 (Life Below Water) and many national climate mitigation and adaptation goals recognize the importance of protecting coastal ecosystems. In parallel, many public-private initiatives have emerged to accelerate the necessary action to protect and restore blue carbon ecosystems. For example, the World Economic Forum’s Friends of Ocean Action and the High-Level Panel on Building a Sustainable Ocean Economy, chaired by Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg, offer crucial platforms to forge partnerships and advance action on the ground.

Mobilizing investment remains a challenge

One critical challenge for protecting coastal ecosystems at the required speed and scale is the mobilization of investment. As is the case for other climate and sustainable development investment needs, private sector investment and the blending of public and private finance is critically important for reaching scale.

Mangroves in Broome, Northwestern Australia

Mangroves in Broome, Northwestern Australia.

Payments for ecosystem services (PES) offer one proven approach for financing the protection and restoration of blue carbon ecosystems and supporting sustainable livelihoods for coastal communities. In exchange for investing in the protection or restoration of mangroves, for example, businesses receive certified carbon credits to manage their own emissions.

To date, such schemes have been small scale compared to the size of the challenge. Looking ahead, there are three promising opportunities to scale up the market for blue carbon and thereby mobilize additional private sector investment to protect coastal ecosystems and livelihoods.

1. Fewer than 20 percent of countries include blue carbon in their NDCs

Over 150 countries have at least one blue carbon ecosystem on their territory; in 71 countries all three types (mangroves, seagrass meadows and tidal marshes) exist. However, only 28 countries have included coastal wetlands in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), the emission reduction plans submitted under the Paris agreement. There are two ways of looking at this omission: as highlighting the need for more countries to include blue carbon in their climate mitigation goals; or as an opportunity to drive investment in complimentary emission reduction activities on top of NDCs.

2. The voluntary carbon market demonstrates companies will invest

Lessons learned from the voluntary carbon market suggest companies seek to invest in emission reduction projects that relate to their core business and deliver social, economic and biodiversity co-benefits (see, for example, a case study on Philips Lighting). Research reports that 41 percent of carbon-offset buyers look for a "fit" with their organizational mission, and 24 percent look for co-benefits such as biodiversity protection and community livelihoods when purchasing carbon credits. This suggests that certified coastal ecosystem protection programs would resonate with buyers from industries such as tourism, aviation, oil and gas, and shipping. The last three sectors are among the highest emitters of CO2 and have little room for reducing emissions through technology innovation at the required speed, scale and cost.

3. New compliance market for shipping could mobilize finance

Among the above-mentioned industries, shipping stands out as a possible source of demand for investment in the protection of coastal ecosystems. Currently responsible for about 2.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the industry’s growth projections suggest sector-wide emissions will increase by between 50 percent and 250 percent by 2050 — a trend incompatible with the goals of the Paris climate accord.

Nevertheless, along with aviation, the shipping industry has been excluded from the agreement. By next month, the International Maritime Organization is expected to release a draft climate change strategy for the entire sector. If the strategy were to include global carbon offsetting mechanisms — similar to the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation — it could generate considerable private sector demand for blue carbon and thereby help mobilize private sector investment to protect and restore coastal ecosystems.

Mobilizing blue climate finance was front and center at last week’s World Ocean Summit in Cancún and Playa del Carmen, hosted by the Economist Group and the government of Mexico. And rightly so: protecting those vital ecosystems and creating sustainable livelihoods for coastal communities is clearly is much more than a drop in the ocean of climate action. Failing to protect — and where necessary, restore — these ecosystems would compromise our chances of avoiding severe social, environmental and economic consequences of climate change.