‘Liver of the oceans’: Morrison banks on blue carbon for climate action

‘Liver of the oceans’: Morrison banks on blue carbon for climate action

Capturing blue carbon greenhouse gases in mangroves, marshes and seagrasses is critical to fighting climate change, the federal government says, but experts warn while it’s a positive step a new $30 million fund won’t solve global warming.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was under pressure when he delivered his speech to 40 world leaders at US President Joe Biden’s climate summit last week. Unlike many of our major trading partners – including the European Union, UK, US and Japan – Australia had no ambitious emissions reduction goals to announce.

Greenhouse gas sequestered in marine vegetation is the focus of a new government fund for blue carbon, which will support ecosystems like the mangroves in the Exmouth Gulf, Western Australia. Credit:Andre Rerekura

Mr Morrison instead promoted his commitment to practical measures, and he singled out blue carbon, which he said can deliver outcomes in Australia and for our neighbours in the Pacific.

The government’s blue carbon fund will invest $19 million in restoring lost mangroves and wetlands in Australia, $10 million to support similar projects in developing countries most likely in the Pacific, and $1 million to develop a carbon accounting method to be banked against a country’s emissions reduction targets.

“These mangrove environments are often referred to as the lungs of the ocean. Some might even call them the liver of the ocean in the cleansing impact they have,” Mr Morrison said after the summit.

In Australia and elsewhere, estuaries and coastal wetlands have been replaced by engineering and infrastructure. They’ve been filled in, drained off and dug up to make way for agriculture and urban development.

Millions of hectares of mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses have been lost, taking with them invaluable fish and bird nurseries as well as buffer zones against storms, coastal erosion, even future sea level rise.

Blue carbon delivers better bang for buck compared to terrestrial projects like forest regrowth because wetlands and seagrasses can store three to five times more carbon per hectare compared to other ecosystems, says National University of Singapore Associate Professor Daniel Friess.

However, Dr Friess said environmental projects cannot be used by governments as a “get out of jail free card” on climate action.

“At the end of the day we need to be realistic about how much any nature-based solution can do,” he said. “It’s no excuse to not do other things, namely decarbonising the economy.”

University of Wollongong Associate Professor Kerrylee Rogers said Australia was in a “unique position” to restore vast areas of coastal habitat which had been blocked off from the ocean with tidal barrages and drainage.

Unlike many places much of Australia’s coastline is untouched by urban development.

“There’s been a lot of wetland drainage and flood mitigation put in for agricultural purposes, and we are seeing they are no longer viable for farming,” Dr Rogers said. “They have been disconnected (from the ocean) and the substrate is changing which means they are sinking lower and lower. They are a prime opportunity for conversion with blue carbon.”

About 14 million hectares of mangrove forest remains around the world, and it could be the most effective mitigation tool for island nations facing inundation from rising sea levels.

Helping to restore them could be an effective diplomatic tool for Australia which, with the federal government promoting a gas-fired recovery, has been the target of angry calls for climate action from Pacific leaders.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley announced the blue carbon funding last week as part of $100 million in a new funding conservation initiative that includes marine parks, threatened species, and Indigenous protected areas.

“While blue carbon has become something of a buzzword, it is critically important … in the fight against climate change,” Ms Ley said.

The Nature Conservancy oceans director Tony Gillies said funding for blue carbon was positive recognition that nature can play a role in reducing global warming.

He said environmental sequestration can deliver up to 30 per cent of the carbon abatement required to limit warming to 1.5 degrees celsius.

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