Legal implications of blue carbon

By Centre for Law and Environment , on 25 October 2012

The Centre for Law and Environment has recently commenced a research project entitled Binding blue carbon: developing global legal and policy responses to an emerging risk of climate change. Ben Milligan is the project’s principal investigator. Contributions are also provided by Professor Richard Macrory QC. Funding is provided by the AXA Research Fund through the Fund’s Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme.

The term ‘blue carbon’ refers to carbon stored, sequestered and released from the ocean’s vegetated habitats, including mangroves, tidal marshes, and sea-grass beds. Recent scientific studies have drawn attention to the critical role played by these ecosystems in regulating climate change. The Centre for Law and Environment’s blue carbon project will map the extent to which blue carbon management activities are consistent with, or already enabled by, international legal and institutional governance frameworks of relevance to nature-based climate change mitigation. In collaboration with several inter-governmental organisations, it will also develop detailed recommendations for enabling blue carbon management activities in selected developing countries.

Detailed project overview

The critical role of blue carbon and associated risks

The term ‘blue carbon’ refers to carbon stored, sequestered and released from the ocean’s vegetated habitats, including mangroves, tidal marshes, and sea-grass beds. Recent scientific studies have drawn attention to the critical role played by these ecosystems in regulating climate change. A report published in 2009 by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that marine vegetated habitats store 55% of the world’s naturally absorbed carbon dioxide. These habitats contain less than 1% of the plant biomass on land, but absorb a comparable amount of carbon dioxide per year. The marine ecosystems that bind blue carbon are being damaged or destroyed at an increasing rate by anthropogenic factors including aquaculture, marine and land-based pollution, and coastal development. If this trend is not arrested, there is a risk that:

  • the global capability of natural ecosystems to mitigate climate change will be significantly eroded; and
  • on-going damage and destruction of marine vegetated habitats will cause previously stored blue carbon to be released back into the atmosphere (thereby accelerating climate change).

How can law and policy respond to these risks?

Over the last 20 years, several international legal and institutional governance frameworks have been developed in an attempt to preserve the climate change mitigation function of natural ecosystems. These ‘nature-based’ mitigation frameworks are designed to encourage three key responses to climate change related risks:

  1. protection of vegetation and natural ecosystems;
  2. provision of financial incentives for developing countries to establish such protection measures;
  3. relevant capacity building and technical assistance for developing countries.

At present the clear focus of nature-based climate change mitigation efforts is to encourage the protection of terrestrial vegetation (in particular tropical rainforests). Current nature-based climate change mitigation frameworks were developed before the importance of blue carbon was well understood. How they need to be modified to enable management of blue carbon and accommodate the acute need to protect marine plant life (for climate-related objectives) is at present unclear. Building on existing preliminary studies, the projects key research objectives are to:

  • map the extent to which blue carbon management activities are consistent with, or already enabled by, international legal and institutional governance frameworks of relevance to nature-based climate change mitigation; and
  • develop detailed recommendations for enabling blue carbon management activities at a national level through progressive development and implementation of these international frameworks.

The recommendations will focus primarily (but not exclusively) on challenges faced by developing countries in tropical regions, where blue carbon sinks are primarily located.

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