Blue Carbon and Marine Conservation

The Opportunity

Blue carbon is the carbon captured and stored in vegetated, coastal ecosystems – primarily mangroves, seagrass meadows, and saltmarshes. These ecosystems are incredibly effective ‘carbon sinks’, extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in the plants themselves and the underlying soils. Seagrasses and mangroves are 40-50 times more efficient at storing carbon than terrestrial forests. The carbon stored in Australian blue carbon ecosystems is globally significant, accounting for about 11% of worldwide blue carbon stocks. The degradation of blue carbon ecosystems will, unless prevented, lead to significant carbon emissions. Research also shows damage to these ecosystems; through human development, severe weather and the impacts of climate change; is causing losses of about 1% of the total area each year, and causing 2-3 million tonnes of CO2 emissions to be released back into the atmosphere annually.

The Sequestration Potential and Carbon Markets

By avoiding further losses or restoring losses there is significant potential to generate revenue through carbon credit markets Both South Australia and Queensland recognise the mitigation potential of blue carbon, with Queensland investing in proof of concept as part of its Land Restoration Fund, and South Australia developing a Blue Carbon strategy. Western Australia is well placed with both the expertise and territory to develop a blue-carbon industry. Exciting work is being done out of the UWA Oceans Institute, with a small team collecting and resettling seagrass with potential to restore coastal habitats and sequester drawdown significant amounts of carbon. Western Australia’s coastline extends for over 10,000 km with globally significant Blue Carbon ecosystems covering over three million hectares. It’s estimated these WA ecosystems collectively store 412 million tonnes of CO2 and sequester about 1.3 million tonnes of CO2 annually.

The Proposal

  1. Develop a WA Blue Carbon Strategy identifying demonstration projects and supporting WA’s 2050 net-zero emissions target.
  2. Partner with industry and the research sector to establish a WA Blue Carbon Research Institute.
  3. Map WA’s Blue Carbon ecosystem and mitigation opportunities.
  4. Provide funding for ‘right-way’ science projects partnered with Indigenous communities and leverage this research into long-term Blue Carbon projects that employ Indigenous people through Aboriginal Ranger programs and enterprises.
  5. Dedicate a proportion of existing funding for Aboriginal Ranger and other natural resource management programs to coastal and sea country projects that include management and enhancement of blue carbon values.
  6. Work with the Australian government to develop a Blue Carbon offset standard under the national Climate Solutions Fund, enabling carbon markets and other robust finance instruments to support Blue Carbon protection and restoration.
  7. Investigate and employ effective mechanisms for financing blue carbon projects, including issuing green (or blue) bonds, payments for ecosystem services (PES) and public-private partnerships.
  8. Increase funding for marine and coastal habitat restoration and conservation. Scaling up the stewardship of mangrove and seagrass habitats into commercial-scale enterprises has the potential to unlock private investment and create further employment in these areas.
  9. Expand Western Australia’s marine protected area (MPA) estate to provide protection and management for our most valuable blue carbon sinks.
  10. Review management plans for activities that have the potential to impact blue carbon stocks, including recreational and commercial fisheries, management plans for existing MPA’s, coastal planning policies, and catchment management plans to ensure blue carbon values are recognised and protected.
  11. Ensure Environmental Impact Assessment processes and planning decisions consider the impacts on blue carbon for all marine or coastal development proposals.
  12. Request the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to develop a state-wide Blue Carbon Environmental Protection Policy (EPP) under the Environmental Protection Act.

Current Barriers

The wide range of potential economic value reflects a need for further research and a lack of approved methodologies for blue carbon. This uncertainty makes private investment in this blue carbon market risky. Lowering that risk by developing methods and supporting research will unlock private investment and provide jobs. The Australian Government is currently assessing the feasibility of blue carbon project methods in partnership with other state and territory governments, research providers and industry groups through a national Blue Carbon Roadmap. Professor Gary Kendrick, Head of UWA Oceans Institute believes there could be huge abatement by protecting and restoring the mangroves in Exmouth Gulf and strong abatement potentials by seagrass restoration in Cockburn Sound and Shark Bay Marine Park. Such blue carbon projects in WA will be vitally dependant on mapping the extent of our vegetated coastal ecosystems, including what has been lost, the cause of decline, and to what extent areas can be restored.

The Role of Marine Conservation and Protected Areas

Blue carbon values are associated with healthy marine ecosystems and the health and viability of seagrass, mangroves and other blue carbon systems relies on a healthy ecosystem. Changing the ecological balance of these systems can have profound impacts on blue carbon storage and sequestration potential. This can occur through:
  • Direct clearing or loss of seagrass or mangrove habitat;
  • Impacts on water quality as a result of dredging, runoff, spills and contamination, or coastal development;
  • Changes to species composition resulting from commercial or recreational fishing which can lead to changes to grazing pressure and loss of ecological connectivity;
  • Introduction of marine pests and diseases
Climate change impacts can exacerbate the above pressures and cause catastrophic loss of blue carbon through direct temperature impacts. Vast areas of seagrass and mangrove ecosystems have been affected already and maintaining the resilience of these systems by managing other pressures is essential. The establishment of marine protected areas, as well as improved fisheries management, coastal planning, environmental impact assessment, and management of land-based activities that impact water quality, are all important tools in supporting the protection and resilience of existing blue carbon stocks. These tools will be essential to ensure the success of efforts to restore or enhance blue carbon.
Blue and purple coral

Jobs and Benefits

  • We estimate this initiative would create 120 jobs immediately and up to 270 jobs in the short to medium term in transport, construction, marine engineering, project management, science and aquaculture.
  • Marine ecosystems provide multiple ‘ecosystem services’ such as providing habitats and nurseries for fish and other marine life, providing coastal protection, and improving water quality.
  • Healthy marine systems that support blue carbon stores also underpin very significant economic activities such as the seagrass providing habitat fot he fishing industry, flooding mitigation from mangroves
  • Investment in WA’s Blue Carbon also brings a huge opportunity for Indigenous groups to participate and lead collaborative science projects on Sea Country.
  • Building resilience to climate change by protecting shorelines and enhancing resilience to storm surges and rising sea levels.

Case Study: South Australia's Blue Carbon Strategy

South Australia’s Blue Carbon Strategy 2020-2025 establishes a state-wide, evidence-based program of projects and research geared towards blue carbon ecosystem protection and restoration.

It prioritises:

  • investigating finance mechanisms including carbon markets for coastal restoration activities, recognising that land-based carbon sequestration projects are eligible under the ERF, with established methods to calculate carbon benefits.
  • Funding research to quantify blue carbon projects and co-benefits
  • Funding for blue carbon demonstration projects, and
  • Providing stronger protection for blue carbon ecosystems in planning frameworks

What would it cost?

Delivering this plan for blue carbon and marine conservation is estimated to cost $12.5m, including

  • $2m to map WA’s blue carbon opportunities
  • $500,000 additional Department Resources to lead the Blue Carbon strategy and the new unit
  • $3m for collaborative science partnerships with Indigenous land managers and Traditional Owners and to support Aboriginal Ranger programs working with blue carbon. 
  • $3m as seed capital for the establishment of a WA Blue carbon research institute.
  • $4m to protect and manage blue carbon ecosystems in new and existing marine protected areas, to revise management of activities that impact blue carbon and to establish a Blue carbon Environmental Protection Policy.