Coastal habitats are under increasing threat of destruction through human activities. These habitats store large amounts of carbon in their living vegetation and soil; when disturbed, this stored carbon—increasingly known as coastal blue carbon—can be released in the form of greenhouse gases. Global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, principally emission trading systems or “carbon markets,” could represent a potentially large economic incentive to convince the holders of coastal ecosystems to avoid habitat conversion and thus lessen the likelihood that ecosystems will change from greenhouse gas sinks to sources. Like payments for REDD+, incentives to retain rather than emit blue carbon would preserve biodiversity as well as a variety of other ecosystem services at local and regional scales. Research at the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability examines the economic and scientific challenges that need to be addressed in order to determine whether payments for blue carbon may one day help conserve mangroves, seagrass meadows, and salt marshes.
The Nicholas Institute recognizes that this research can make a difference only if it is effectively communicated to policymakers and other key stakeholders. With that in mind, it has prepared different products for different audiences. Reports and papers that communicate current understanding of blue carbon have been written for scientists and economists. Key messages have been distilled for governments and private sector decision makers who can mobilize resources to protect blue carbon.
Researchers are also engaged with international policy processes, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to inform them as they determine how best to devise global policies and institutions for blue carbon protection.
Mapping Blue Carbon in Eastern States
In support of North Carolina’s Natural and Working Lands stakeholder group, the Nicholas Institute mapped carbon storage and sequestration by existing salt marsh and seagrass habitats, and explored how sea level rise might affect those processes in the future. The Institute developed a collection of StoryMaps to communicate the results of this analysis, and related data are available for download.
In an expansion of the North Carolina blue carbon mapping, the Nicholas Institute is worked with six eastern seaboard states to map current carbon sequestration by salt marshes and seagrass, and potential changes to blue carbon storage due to sea level rise.
Developing North Carolina's Blue Economy
The Institute works with the North Carolina Sea Grant Program to assess opportunities to better align future growth in North Carolina’s ocean economy with environmental health. In early 2016, the effort should produce an assessment of the state of North Carolina’s blue economy in preparation for examining state and local decision makers’ policy options.
A working paper provides a first assessment of the existing information available to measure the size and extent of North Carolina’s ocean economy, and proposes next steps to transition to a blue economy.
Financing Restoration and Conservation of Mangroves in West Africa
As part of a study performed in cooperation with GRID-Arendal for the United Nations Environment Programme, the Nicholas Institute is working with Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Analysis Lab to explore financing mechanisms for the restoration and conservation of coastal ecosystems in west Africa. Specifically, they are researching the region’s blue carbon economic and financial potential according to the literature and investigating REDD+ and other global blue carbon crediting activities related to west African mangroves. They are also examining existing policy frameworks for blue carbon and ongoing and completed blue carbon-related activities in the region.