Thursday, December 2, 2010

On Less Discussed Ecosystems in the Climate Negotiations

On Wednesday, I attended side events that focused on ecosystems that are not really focal points in the official negotiation sessions. Many of us are familiar with reports of the decline in sea ice, the melting of glaciers, and sections of ice shelves that are breaking off in Antarctica. Indeed, some of this evidence has led to the sense of urgency in trying to obtain international agreements for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change. But no one knows how to save the Polar Regions or glaciers so they are not covered in the climate finance discussions (e.g. carbon offsets) or in conversations about adaptation. I also learned today that there is great potential for carbon capture and sequestration in coastal ecosystems, but these are not included in discussions about incentives for restoration and protection in the way that tropical rainforests are.

I attended the premier of the film The Polar Explorer produced by filmmaker Mark Terry of Neko Harbour Entertainment ( Last year, Terry’s film The Antarctic Challenge was the only one invited to be screened at COP15 in Copenhagen ( For the new film for COP16, he accompanied scientific expeditions to both poles to see first hand how polar research is being conducted and to learn what the data is telling scientists. The changes are dramatic in terms of the loss of ice in terms of extent (area covered) and volume (which includes ice depth). For example, Pine Island Glacier (a misnomer) in the Antarctic is retreating by 10 meters per day in some areas and the melt from this one glacier adds 46 gigatons of water into the ocean per year! In some regions, the changing temperatures are resulting in dramatic reductions of phytoplankton and in turn, krill and penguins, which are on higher rungs of the food ladder. In others, the loss of ice cover is exposing new ocean life and sea floor topography never before studied. The biological and human consequences of these changes at the poles are significant, Terry presents the challenges in a way that is both poignant, and at times, slightly humorous—as when he swims in a newly exposed section of ocean in the Antarctic and refers to it as the region’s newest sport. But the implications for flood protection and relocation of coastal communities are very serious indeed.

Later in the day, I attended a panel presentation on the role of coastal ecosystems in the global carbon cycle and climate change story. About one-half of the global primary production (photosynthetic conversion of carbon dioxide to organic carbon) occurs in the open ocean and this capture and subsequent sequestration of carbon represents a large percentage of the global carbon budget. However, this story is essentially absent in carbon-sequestration incentive proposals and there is relatively little discussion about the management of the ocean systems in climate negotiations.

Because open oceans represent dynamic systems that are difficult to study, scientists and conservation groups focus on coastal ecosystems including seagrasses, mangroves, salt marshes, and coastal wetlands. These are extremely important for fisheries, biodiversity, coastal protection during storms, cultural values, and tourism. They also account for very high rates of carbon sequestration – perhaps five to ten times higher than terrestrial levels and can maintain this capacity for decades. But these ecosystems are rapidly being damaged or lost all together. This has all sorts of consequences related to the ecosystem services mentioned above, but also releases carbon that has been stored for centuries or longer.

One example that was given was for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta which has been drained over the last hundred years to provide about 300,000 acres of farmland. This has resulted in soil loss (about 1 inch per year), the release of about 3 billion tons of carbon, and the loss of sequestration potential. If the release was stopped and the region restored to its native condition (not likely) it is estimated that there would be a net gain of carbon sequestration of about 62 tons of carbon per hectare per year!

These types of determinations are only beginning to be done for major coastal ecosystems around the world and only recently, has attention been given to their conservation and restoration. Likewise, only preliminary analysis has been done to determine if the sale of carbon credits to protect coastal ecosystems would be worthwhile, but early analyses suggest that they may indeed be. There are the direct costs of protecting a physical area, but also the lost opportunities such as for shrimp farms/farmers and tourism (beachfront resort income). It was pointed out that all of us staying in Cancun hotels built on what was once mangroves.

Concerns were raised from the audience about carbon credits in general, the threats to these ecosystems with worsening ocean acidification and rising sea levels, and the lack of accounting for anaerobic conditions in some coastal ecosystems that release methane and nitrous oxides which are also greenhouse gases. But the take home messages included the need for more research; that these ecosystems provide many important functions that benefit humans and other species and as such, should be protected and better managed, and that they should be included in climate negotiations.

1 comment:

  1. good to have a connection to the CC issues even here in Cascabel