Blue carbon to the rescue
Piercing-blue ocean, miles of white sandy beaches and some 340 days of sunshine a year. The Bahamas certainly has some strong natural assets. And its unique waters hide another treasure – the planet’s largest seagrass ecosystem.
The lush underwater vegetation plays a vital ecological role. Seagrass has always been essential to the islands’ biodiversity – providing homes and food for dozens of marine species, many of them endangered and in their early phases of life.
But it is the plant’s ability to trap and store greenhouse gases that has seen it gain global attention. Seagrass is in fact a hugely efficient carbon sink, trapping hundreds of millions of tonnes of the greenhouse gas. Thanks to its thick and dense root systems that decompose only very slowly, it is much more efficient at capturing CO2 than rainforests.
Yet, this crucial asset is at risk. Research suggests that some 7 per cent of global seagrass meadows are disappearing per year.1 To let this happen seems a travesty in a world increasingly concerned about greenhouse gas emissions and working towards a zero-carbon future.
All of which explains why efforts to protect it – in The Bahamas and elsewhere – are gathering pace.
“They are the real lungs of our planet,” says Dr. Austin Gallagher, CEO and lead scientist at Beneath The Waves, a non-profit ocean conservation start-up. “The carbon naturally enters into the water and these plants, seagrasses, take carbon in through photosynthesis, transporting it through the roots and storing it forever.”
Using satellite technology, Beneath The Waves has mapped out the meadows, with the largest one estimated to be up to 93,000 sq km – more than twice the size of Switzerland. In total, research by Gallagher and his colleagues suggests that The Bahamas could hold around 25 per cent of all carbon stored in seagrass globally.
“This is a global climate asset, because it naturally fights climate change. If it weren’t for these seagrass meadows, we’d likely be in an even worse situation with greenhouse gases in our atmosphere,” says Gallagher.
Fortunately, Beneath The Waves – together with the government of The Bahamas – has devised a solution.
Blueprint for blue carbon
Under the plan, The Bahamas will become the first country in the world to sell blue carbon credits – effectively enabling companies, governments or individuals to offset their unavoidable carbon emissions by helping to protect and maintain the seagrass meadows which in turn absorb the emitted gases.
“We are seeing so many companies around the world making bold commitments in the race to [carbon] neutrality,” says Gallagher. “Changes in energy use should be applauded, but there will still be a component that they can’t control when it comes to emissions – unavoidable emissions. To become carbon neutral, they have the option to buy carbon credits.”
They will be essentially buying protection for these carbon sinks and avoiding future emissions. And there will be a number of co-benefits, such as the conservation of sharks, turtles and marine biodiversity more broadly. The Bahamas government is not lacking incentives to take action. Some 15 per cent of the island’s GDP is threatened by climate change.2
With emerging markets broadly acknowledged to be at greater risk from climate change than their developed counterparts and yet having more limited funds for mitigation and adaptation, The Bahamas could provide a template for others to harness their natural resources for wide benefit.
“We are trying to create the blueprint for the future of blue carbon projects, mainly in small island developing nations. I think The Bahamas will be seen as the trailblazer in that regard,” Gallagher says.
First steps have already been taken, with the passing of innovative legislation that established a framework for protecting the meadows and laying the foundations for blue carbon credits.
However, there is still much to be done, including creating a formal and standardised approach for mapping and quantifying how much carbon is actually in the soils – including using airplanes and scuba divers.
The initiative “will secure huge amounts of ocean space as protected areas for the next 100 years,” says Gallagher. “Meanwhile our organisation will be doing the groundwork to assist with the registration of these areas and the creation of blue carbon credits. It’s a complicated process.”
The hope is that the credits can go on sale within one to two years, with the revenues used not only to support the seagrass meadows but also The Bahamas more broadly.
“We are very confident that this can be a transformative project to benefit the people of The Bahamas,” said Gallagher.
Insights for investors
- Carbon credit market could top USD50 billion by 2030, according to consultancy McKinsey, representing a 15-fold increase over five years.
- That equates to credits covering up to 2 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2030, rising to as high as 13 gigatons by 2050.
- Seagrass, mangroves and salt marshes could absorb CO2 at an annual rate of some 1.4 billion tonnes by 2050, according to the World Resources Institute. Maintaining and protecting them also ensures existing carbon stores are not returned back into the atmosphere.