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BARBARA GIBSON


43


O


ff the coast of Formentera in the Balearics is an or- ganism that stretches 15km. Scientists call it Posido- nia oceanica. To the rest of us, it’s seagrass. Few of us think about it much – unless we get stuck in it. But that may soon change. Seagrass meadows are about


to become very important – perhaps pivotal – to our future. That’s because they naturally ‘suck’ carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into plant matter, something the world needs more than ever. Wetlands can hold five times more carbon in their soils, muds and plants than a temperate or tropical forest. One hectare of sea- grass alone can soak up as much carbon dioxide each year as 15 hec- tares of rainforest. Scientists estimate that coastal carbon sinks, dubbed ‘blue carbon’, have absorbed around 30 per cent of the car- bon dioxide mankind has emitted by burning fossil fuels. Around 33 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (about three-quarters of the world’s emissions in 2019) are locked away in them. ‘Blue carbon creates an opportunity to reduce emissions,’ says Roger Ullman, executive director of the Linden Trust for Conserva- tion, an environmentalist group in New York City. ‘These fabulous ecosystems don’t cover a very large expanse of territory, yet still pro- vide enormously important services to humanity.’ Blue carbon is attracting interest from big business, investors and


climate campaigners who are keen to use natural processes, alongside human technologies such as direct-air capture, to suck greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. As Dr Arlo Brady, chairman of the Blue Marine Foundation, an NGO devoted to restoring marine habitats and sequestering carbon, puts it: ‘Blue carbon is a vital tool, of which we need more. It’s part of a nature-based solution to climate change.’ Global sales of green bonds, including blue carbon bonds, have


skyrocketed over the past five years, with $233 billion worth sold in 2020, a 13 per cent jump over the previous year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s been accompanied by a clutch of new securities sold or in the works, such as carbon-neutral, transition, nature and sustainability bonds.


The Asian Development Bank aims to promote blue-bond issu- ance through its Oceans Financing Initiative, which will expand its investments and assistance in the ‘blue economy’ to $5 billion by 2024. The initiative will also offer revenue guarantees to reduce investor risk. Bank of China’s Paris and Macau branches issued a $500 million three-year note and a CNY3 billion ($464 million) two-year note to help finance marine-related projects. Spreads on the bank’s dollar bond tightened about 26 basis points since being sold, outperforming the broader market of Chinese investment-grade bonds, where average spreads narrowed around 23 basis points, ac- cording to Bloomberg-compiled data. Protecting and increasing the size of wetlands is not only impor- tant to ensure future carbon emissions are better absorbed. Since they already store so much carbon, their destruction releases sub- stantial amounts of CO2


into the atmosphere. Aquaculture, agricul-


ture, timber extraction and real estate development are destroying wetlands around the world at a rate three or four times faster than the rate of tropical forest destruction. To date, mankind has de- stroyed more than 35 per cent of mangroves, 30 per cent of seagrass meadows and 20 per cent of salt marshes. If these ecosystems are restored and protected, up to 200 million tonnes of CO2


could be captured annually, scientists estimate. ‘We


cannot tolerate the destruction of coastal ecosystems that are cham- pions at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in soils,’ says Patrick Megonigal, who studies how coastal marshes and forests respond to climate change at George Mason University near Washington DC. Environmentalists are urging governments to set targets for pro-


tecting and restoring marine ecosystems as part of their commit- ments under the Paris Agreement on climate change. They are also calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining, and for expanding marine-protected areas to cover at least 30 per cent of the world’s oceans and seas by 2030. Currently, less than 8 per cent of the world’s crucial coastal wetlands are protected.


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