Binding blue carbon: developing global legal and policy responses to an emerging risk of climate change

In Ben's own words

I - The critical role of blue carbon and associated risks

The term "blue carbon" refers to carbon stored, sequestered and released from the ocean's vegetated habitats, including mangroves, tidal marshes, and sea-grass beds. Recent scientific studies have drawn attention to the critical role played by these ecosystems in regulating climate change. A report published in 2009 by the United Nations Environment Program estimates that marine vegetated habitats store 55% of the world's naturally absorbed carbon dioxide. These habitats contain less than 1% of the plant biomass on land, but absorb a comparable amount of carbon dioxide per year.

The marine ecosystems that bind blue carbon are being damaged or destroyed at an increasing rate by anthropogenic factors including aquaculture, marine and land-based pollution, and coastal development. If this trend is not arrested, there is a risk that:

  1. the global capability of natural ecosystems to mitigate climate change will be significantly eroded,
  2. and on-going damage and destruction of marine vegetated habitats will cause previously stored blue carbon to be released back into the atmosphere (thereby accelerating climate change).

II - My research objective: how can law and policy respond to these risks?

Over the last 20 years, several international legal and institutional governance frameworks have been developed in an attempt to preserve the climate change mitigation function of natural ecosystems. These frameworks were developed before the importance of blue carbon was well understood. How they need to be modified to enable management of blue carbon and accommodate the acute need to protect marine plant life (for climate-related objectives) is at present unclear.

My research objectives are:

  1. to map the extent to which blue carbon management activities are consistent with, or already enabled by, international legal and institutional governance frameworks of relevance to nature-based climate change mitigation;
  2. and to develop detailed recommendations for enabling blue carbon management activities at a national level, in particular through progressive development and implementation of these international frameworks.

The recommendations will focus primarily (but not exclusively) on challenges faced by developing countries in tropical regions, where the marine ecosystems that bind blue carbon are primarily located. Future management of these ecosystems will have global implications for climate change.

III - Strategies for influencing decision-makers

These include: identify key decision-making organisations (and decision-makers) at national and international levels; engage in regular stakeholder consultation and iterative development of research objective to ensure that it remains relevant to identified decision-making organisations; identify co-authors to fill gaps in expertise; and select appropriate publisher and communication channels for research findings (a critical consideration is the relationship/reputation of publishing organisation with decision-makers).