Blue Carbon

Grettel Navas of the Fundación Neotropica* in Costa Rica introduces the notion of Blue Carbon.
Article reproduced by kind permission of Fundación Neotropica.

Carbon capture. Greenhouse gas emissions. Compensation. Climate change. These and other concepts are repeatedly used in academic discussions, in expert forums and press articles around the world. But they are also used in everyday conversations about the state of our planet and its future.

Only recently, however, has the concept of Blue Carbon been introduced in official discussions on climate change. It was the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea who, based on a global study carried out on the carbon fixation of marine and coastal ecosystems, presented this concept to the international community at the United Nations.

Parallel with the concept of Green Carbon (stored in the forest and the ground), Blue Carbon can be defined as that stored by different marine and coastal ecosystems ̶ for example, plankton, bacteria, seaweed, marshland plants, mangrove swamps and other wetlands. It has been found that these contain five times more carbon than tropical forests and are therefore hugely relevant to the fight against climate change. In Costa Rica, for example, in light of the government’s commitments to achieve carbon neutrality by 2021, attention is refocusing on these mistreated and forgotten ecosystems as an intelligent strategy.

Mangroves in the Golfo Dulce

Mangroves in the Golfo Dulce

Whilst it is true that marine and coastal ecosystems make up only 0.05% of living biomass, they store an important quantity of carbon in the earth since they are the most intense carbon sink on the planet. Historically the coastal ecosystems have been undervalued and unjustly called ‘swamps’ or ‘unhealthy marshes’. This has given the green light to their systematic destruction. Unlike the capture and storage of carbon in the earth (where it can be locked away for decades or centuries), carbon storage in the ocean can last for thousands of years.

This much has been confirmed in a United Nations Environmental Programme report: “of all the green carbon captured annually in the earth ̶ that is carbon captured for the process of photosynthesis ̶ about 55 per cent is captured by marine ecosystems” (Falkowski et al, 2004; Arrigo, 2005; González et al, 2008; Bowler, 2009; Simon et al, 2009).

The idea behind seeing blue carbon separately and giving it a different name is that it is able to highlight the importance of coastal and marine ecosystems, because in many international forums on carbon and climate summits, the role of the oceans has often been minimised or unnoticed. In rescuing its role in climate change we can carry out conservation projects of wetlands, protection of the oceans and protection of different ecosystems.

From 2009 the Costa Rican Fundación Neotropica, aware of the importance of these resources, has continually worked on programmes of community conservation of mangrove swamps. In addition to raising people’s awareness of the importance of the mangrove swamps bordering the Golfo Dulce, the Mangle-Benín project resulted in the strengthening of these areas with the planting of around 100,000 mangrove plants and established environmental clubs with primary school students. The project had strong local support through local organisations and schools, achieving a community-wide management of mangrove areas.

Moreover, with the project ECOTICOS, the ecological economics of the Térraba-Sierpe National Wetlands for the community, Costa Rica and the world were assessed. This wetlands area houses the largest area of mangroves of its kind in the American hemisphere, which even by conservative estimates, produces environmental benefits to the value of $10,000 per hectare p.a..

Another important initiative has been the Wetlands Life for All campaign held in conjunction with other organisations and institutions such as Apreflofas, the School of Biology at the University of Costa Rica and student associations at the major state universities. Through this campaign they look to achieve a greater awareness of the importance of these coastal ecosystems, the benefits that they provide and the need for their effective conservation.

In Costa Rica, despite all its important conservation initiatives, a significant number of mangrove areas are not designated as Protected Wilderness Area having only the general declaration that the law affords to wetlands. This creates a great deal of uncertainty on the future of their management and conservation. These ecosystems are fragile and under constant threat by pressure from production activities, sedimentation and climate change, amongst other factors. This is true in the case of the mangrove areas of Golfo Dulce for example.

“From the incorporation of Costa Rica as a member of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 1991, a movement for the conservation and rational use of this type of ecosystems was begun. In addition to serving as a source of income from their diverse products and benefits, they also serve as a habitat for rich biodiversity.” (Source: EARTH)

In the fight to counteract climate change, the application of the concept of Blue Carbon and the conservation of coastal and marine ecosystems becomes an urgent action, both beneficial and vital, being an extremely important link for all sectors of society: environmental organisations, social movements, government institutions, academics, private companies and concerned individuals, all committed to conservation.

* Fundación Neotrópica promotes the coordination and auto-management for the conservation and for a just and equitable distribution of the benefits generated by natural resources. The organisation’s website is at:

Carbon trading: discredited strategy

Increasing allegations of corruption and profiteering are raising serious questions about the UN-run carbon trading mechanism aimed at cutting pollution and rewarding clean technologies, writes Patrick McCully, executive director of US thinktank International Rivers in The Guardian, Wednesday 21 May 2008

The world’s biggest carbon offset market, the Kyoto Protocol’s clean development mechanism (CDM), is run by the UN, administered by the World Bank, and is intended to reduce emissions by rewarding developing countries that invest in clean technologies. In fact, evidence is accumulating that it is increasing greenhouse gas emissions behind the guise of promoting sustainable development. The misguided mechanism is handing out billions of dollars to chemical, coal and oil corporations and the developers of destructive dams – in many cases for projects they would have built anyway.

According to David Victor, a leading carbon trading analyst at Stanford University in the US, as many as two-thirds of the supposed “emission reduction” credits being produced by the CDM from projects in developing countries are not backed by real reductions in pollution. Those pollution cuts that have been generated by the CDM, he argues, have often been achieved at a stunningly high cost: billions of pounds could have been saved by cutting the emissions through international funds, rather than through the CDM’s supposedly efficient market mechanism.

And when a CDM credit does represent an “emission reduction”, there is no global benefit because offsetting is a “zero sum” game. If a Chinese mine cuts its methane emissions under the CDM, there will be no global climate benefit because the polluter that buys the offset avoids the obligation to reduce its own emissions.

A CDM credit is known as a certified emission reduction (CER), and is supposed to represent one tonne of carbon dioxide not emitted to the atmosphere. Industrialised countries’ governments buy the CERs and use them to prove to the UN that they have met their obligations under Kyoto to “reduce” their emissions. Companies can also buy CERs to comply with national-level legislation or with the EU’s emissions trading scheme. Analysts estimate that two-thirds of the emission reduction obligations of the key developed countries that ratified Kyoto may be met through buying offsets rather than by decarbonising their economies.

Almost all the demand for CERs has so far come from Europe and Japan. In the next few years, Australia and Canada could become significant CER buyers. In the longer term, the US could become the largest single market for CDM offsets under legislation being debated. The climate plan by Republican presidential hopeful John McCain would allow supposed emission reductions in the US to be met through domestic and CDM offsets.

Around 2bn CERs are expected to be generated by the end of this phase of Kyoto in 2012. At their current price, project developers will sell around £18bn-worth of CDM credits over the next five years. The CDM approved its 1,000th project on April 15. More than twice as many are making their way through the approvals process.

Marginal improvement

Any type of technology other than nuclear power can apply for credits. Even new coal plants, if these can be shown to be even a marginal improvement upon existing plants, can receive offset income. A massive 4,000MW coal plant on the coast of Gujarat, India, is expected soon to apply for CERs. The plant will spew into the atmosphere 26m tonnes of CO2 per year for at least 25 years. It will be India’s third – and the world’s 16th – largest source of CO2 emissions.

Many observers had hoped that the CDM would promote renewables and energy efficiency. Yet if all projects now in the pipeline generated the CERs they are claiming up to 2012, non-hydro renewables would attract only 16% of CDM funds, and demand-side energy efficiency projects just 1%. Only 16 solar power projects – less than 0.5% of the project pipeline – have applied for CDM approval.

For a project to be eligible to sell offsets, it is supposed to prove that it is “additional”. “Additionality” is key to the design of the CDM. If projects would happen anyway, regardless of CDM benefits, then their offsets would not represent any reduction in emissions.

But judging additionality has turned out to be unknowable and unworkable. It can never be definitively proved that if a developer or factory owner did not get offset income they would not build their project or switch to a cleaner fuel supply- and would not do so over the decade for which projects can sell offsets.

The documents written by carbon consultants to justify why their clients’ projects should be approved for CDM offsets contain enough lies to make a sub-prime mortgage pusher blush. One commonly used “scam” is to make a proposed project look like an economic loser on its own, but a profitable earner once offset income is factored in. Examples include the Indian wind developers who failed to tell the CDM about the lucrative tax credits their projects were earning.

Off-the-record, industry insiders will admit that deceitful claims in CDM applications are standard practice. The carbon trading industry lobby group, the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), has stated that proving the intent of developers applying for the CDM “is an almost impossible task”. Industry representatives have complained that “good storytellers” can get a project approved, “while bad storytellers may fail even if the project is really additional”.

One glaring signal that many of the projects being approved by the CDM’s executive board are non-additional is that almost three-quarters of projects were already complete at the time of approval. It would seem clear that a project that is already built cannot need extra income in order to be built.

Michael Wara, a law professor and carbon trade analyst from Stanford University, and Victor show in a recent paper that “essentially all” new hydro, wind and natural gas fired projects being built in China are now applying for CDM offsets. If the developers are being truthful that their projects are additional, this implies that without the CDM virtually no hydro, wind or gas projects would be under construction in China. Given the boom in construction of power projects in China, the fact that it is government policy to promote these project types, and the fact that thousands of hydro projects have been built in China without any help from the CDM, this is simply not credible.

Additionality also creates perverse incentives for developing country governments not to bring in, or enforce, climate-friendly legislation. Why should a government voluntarily act to cap methane from its landfills or encourage energy efficiency if in doing so it makes these activities “business-as-usual”, and so not additional and not eligible for CDM income?

Waste gases

The project type slated to generate the most CERs is the destruction of a gas called trifluoromethane, or HFC-23, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, and a waste product from the manufacture of a refrigerant gas. Every molecule of HFC-23 causes 11,700 times more global warming than that of CO2. Because of this massive “global warming potential”, chemical companies can earn almost twice as much from selling CERs as from selling refrigerant gases. This has spurred concern that refrigerant producers may be increasing their output solely so that they can produce, and then destroy, more waste gases.

A rapidly growing industry of carbon brokers and consultants is lobbying for the CDM to be expanded and its rules to be weakened further. If we want to sustain public support for effective global action on climate change, we cannot risk one of its central planks being a programme that is so fundamentally flawed. In the short term, the CDM must be radically reformed. In the long term it must be replaced.

At the time when this article was written, Patrick McCully was executive director of International Rivers, a US thinktank, He is now (2014) executive director of Black Rock Solar, a company that promotes environmental stewardship, economic development and energy independence by providing not-for-profit entities, tribes and underserved communities with access to clean energy, education, and job training.

Article reproduced here by kind permission of Patrick McCully.

Carbon neutrality in Costa Rica by 2021?

Costa Rica News – reporting by Marcelo Teixeira (Reuters); editing by Dan Grebler (Reuters); first paragraph added by Dan Stevens; updates provided by Martin Mowforth.

Most of us living in Costa Rica realised that the goal of Costa Rica obtaining carbon neutrality by the year 2021 was a goal that was not going to be attained. The general idea of promoting businesses to be environmentally friendly and offset their carbon credits is a good one, but the overall goal of carbon neutrality in Costa Rica was a long way off. Luis Guillermo Solis who was elected President earlier this year sees the need to adjust this goal.

In April, Costa Rica’s PAC (Citizens’ Action Party), won a four-year presidential term, and dropped the country’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2021. “We don’t think it would be possible to reach carbon neutrality by 2021, because the most important tasks to reduce emissions in the country are yet to be done,” Patricia Madrigal, the Citizens’ Action Party environmental adviser, told Reuters in March.

She said changes in the transport and energy sectors, to increase fuel efficiency and renewables production, are necessary because the nation lacks the means to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in key sectors by the target date. Madrigal said the PAC has no intention of abandoning the carbon neutrality goal, nor other climate policies, but believes a more realistic year to reach the target would be around 2025 if reforms are carried out as planned.

Costa Rica announced in 2009 the intention to become the world’s first carbon neutral country by 2021. The decision and policies adopted to reach the target were praised by environmental groups and multilateral organisations dealing with climate change. The Central American country has managed a successful reforestation plan using a system that pays landowners for protecting forests, funded by a carbon tax on fossil fuels. It increased forest cover from around 20 percent of the total area in the 1980s to about 50 percent currently, although ENCA’s Martin Mowforth questions how much of this increased proportion was achieved through the creation of monoculture plantation forests which are not good for biodiversity.

The restoration of forest cover is generating carbon credits, which Costa Rica intends to use to offset part of its emissions. The government also convinced several companies to neutralise emissions. It set a voluntary carbon market and a bank to assist businesses to buy offsets.

There was no mention, however, of carbon neutrality in a document released by the group with environmental guidelines for a PAC government. The previous government of Laura Chinchilla recognised the 2021 commitment as challenging, but believed it to be a mistake to postpone it. “We knew since the beginning it would be difficult, but it is something possible to be done,” said William Alpizar, the country’s climate head.

According to Alpizar, it was easier to reduce emissions in agriculture and forestry, but much more complex to do it in the transport area, which accounts for almost 70 percent of all emissions related to energy use. He said the country would need to reduce around 5 million metric tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) by 2021 to be carbon neutral. Only a couple of other countries have pledged to neutralise emissions, but have set very distant target dates.