Key Takeaways From the Webinar: Betting on Blue Carbon

Sustainable Travel International recently hosted the second webinar in our Road to Net Zero series: “Betting on Blue Carbon.” This session focused on blue carbon, specifically, why it’s so important and how tourism can support the protection and restoration of these valuable coastal ecosystems.

Our CEO Paloma Zapata led the discussion and was joined by three subject matter experts. Philippa Roe of Six Senses shared examples of how the resort group fosters seagrass preservation at their global properties. We also heard from Robyn Shilland and Mohammed Kassim Juma of the Association for Coastal Ecosystem Services (ACES) about the potential for climate financing to support mangrove conservation and community development.

Below we share a few essential takeaways from the webinar. For more insights, watch the full webinar recording here.

1. Blue carbon ecosystems are found underwater, but play an enormous role in supporting the climate on a global scale.

Blue carbon ecosystems refer to carbon found underwater, in oceans and around coastal areas. Animals, phytoplankton, and plants all fit into this category.

Certain types of blue carbon ecosystems are called carbon sinks. The most notable being mangroves, seagrass, and salt marshes. These ecosystems are particularly important because they store more carbon than they release. Carbon sinks absorb some of the emissions created by humans, reducing pollution in the atmosphere. This makes them a powerful weapon in the fight against climate change.

A school of fish swims over seagrass
A school of fish passes over a dense seagrass meadow in the Mediterranean Sea.

While terrestrial plants, like trees, are the best-known type of carbon sinks, blue carbon ecosystems sequester and store more carbon per unit area. Some blue carbon ecosystems can sequester carbon 10 times faster than land-based forests.

2. Blue carbon ecosystems provide a multitude of benefits to the environment, people, and tourism.

Outside of acting as carbon sinks, blue carbon ecosystems have many additional benefits.

Blue carbon ecosystems don’t just mitigate climate change, they also help communities adapt to it. Many coastal areas are threatened by rising seas and damaging storms. As climate change occurs, these impacts will only get worse, leading to devastating flooding. Blue carbon ecosystems like seagrass and mangroves act as barriers to protect coastal communities from these dangerous effects.

A variety of fish swim around in mangrove roots, a blue carbon ecosystem
Fish swim around mangrove roots and seagrass off the coast of Panama.

Additionally, blue carbon ecosystems are biodiversity hotspots, welcoming and supporting fish, birds, turtles, tigers, and other forms of life. They offer shelter and a food source for animals like turtles. Between the protection they offer and wildlife species they attract, blue carbon ecosystems are important to life on land and underwater.

Communities around the world rely on blue carbon ecosystems for their livelihoods and well-being. People harvest marine animals and plants to support local diets and the fishing industry. Healthy blue carbon ecosystems can greatly improve food security in island destinations as climate change affects their food systems.

Tourism also relies on intact blue carbon ecosystems. Have you ever snorkeled among vibrant and exotic fish? Watched sea turtles munch on seagrass? Or kayaked through lush mangroves tunnels. These unforgettable experiences wouldn’t be possible without thriving coastal ecosystems. By protecting blue carbon ecosystems, the tourism industry can ensure the world’s most beautiful destinations remain pristine and full of life.

A man sitting in a yellow kayak floats away into a mangrove forest
A tourist kayaks through a mangrove forest in the Everglades.

3. Blue carbon ecosystems face a number of devastating threats, primarily brought on by humans.

Despite our reliance on them, humans are the greatest threat to blue carbon ecosystems. Around the world, extensive swaths of mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, and salt marshes have been lost. As tourism frequently takes place in coastal areas, the industry is often part of the problem.

Sometimes this destruction occurs simply for aesthetic reasons. As mentioned by Roe, coastal vegetation was traditionally perceived as a nuisance which detracts from the tourism experience. As a result, many hotels actively removed plants like seagrass and mangroves in beach destinations like the Maldives.

When these plants are removed in large quantities, the amount of carbon being absorbed in that area plummets. On top of this, the carbon stored in the vegetation and soil is released into the atmosphere.

Visitors are also likely to see a substantial decrease in the number of living things frequenting the area. “The differences in biodiversity are just catastrophic between no seagrass and seagrass,” explained Roe. “Guests can initially see the wildlife right in front of the shores.” When seagrass is removed, the resultant sandy lagoon is totally devoid of wild animals.

A sea turtle hovers above short seagrass
A sea turtle in its seagrass habitat in the Maldives.

Land use change also threatens the well-being of blue carbon ecosystems. As humans develop wetlands and other coastal areas, it becomes challenging for these ecosystems to thrive. Beaches and shorelines are cleared to make way for resorts, piers, and cruise ports. Oftentimes in these scenarios, all coastal vegetation is completely removed.

Blue carbon ecosystems are not immune from the impacts of climate change. Just as other ecosystems struggle to adjust to fluctuating temperatures and unprecedented weather events, blue carbon ecosystems are constantly challenged to withstand changing conditions.

4. Tourism companies can inspire the conservation of blue carbon ecosystems through stakeholder engagement and awareness.

Tourism has played a role in damaging blue carbon ecosystems around the world. Fortunately, the industry can also help restore degraded areas and protect these ecosystems from future devastation. Roe explained that in order to achieve lasting conservation gains, it is important to identify and address the root of the problem. In many cases this requires a change in mindset.

Raising awareness is often the first step to shift perceptions and drive long-term behavioral change. The tourism industry is in an opportune position to engage their wide stakeholder network in an educational manner. When visitors understand the value of blue carbon ecosystems, it incentivizes tourism companies to protect them. It’s also important to engage locals in environmental awareness efforts to foster support and involvement from the entire community.

A group of youth stands in shallow water and learns about mangroves
Maldivian youth learn about their local mangrove ecosystems. © Six Senses Laamu

Roe shared how Six Senses is successfully driving seagrass conservation through their Maldives Underwater Initiative. When the initiative began, resorts were methodically removing seagrass to improve the guest experience. Six Senses Laamu recognized this destructive perception and got to work raising awareness about the value of seagrass.

They began by creating a guide for other Maldives resorts, which describes how to use seagrass as a business asset. The guide offers tips for guest education, as well as resources like presentation templates, briefings for seagrass snorkels, and videos. The resort also launched the #ProtectMaldivesSeagrass social media campaign emphasizing topics that are relevant to tourism, like the importance of seagrass to fish and sea turtles.

“We got 27% of all Maldives resorts to support the campaign and pledge to protect their meadows.” said Roe, “Collectively, this was nearly 100,000 square meters of seagrass that was pledged as protected.”

Six Senses provides numerous opportunities for their guests to learn about the importance of blue carbon ecosystems during their stay. This includes educational jungle walks, sunset cruises, and snorkels with marine biologists. All staff members, including housekeeping and maintenance, are trained on how to make each interaction educational for guests.

The resort also hosts variations of these immersive activities for their staff and the local community. Their marine biology team travels to other islands in the Maldives and takes children snorkeling in their home seagrass meadows. In addition, Six Senses hosts cleanup events which employees and guests can join to collect litter in the mangroves or seagrass meadows.

A group of tourists snorkels
An educational snorkel trip hosted by Six Senses © Six Senses Laamu

As is the case with any sustainability challenge, change doesn’t happen overnight. To track conservation progress, Six Senses helped develop a national protocol for monitoring seagrass coverage over time.

5. Carbon offsets are an opportunity to fund initiatives that are protecting and restoring blue carbon ecosystems around the world.

Along with their own awareness-raising activities, the tourism industry can protect blue carbon ecosystems by funding conservation initiatives. Preserving and restoring natural places is essential for climate change mitigation. But these types of nature-based climate projects require a huge amount of financial investment. Carbon offsets are a climate finance mechanism that allows companies and travelers to fund blue carbon conservation projects and other critical climate solutions.

When you purchase carbon offsets, you are technically purchasing a certain number of carbon credits. Each carbon credit represents 1 metric ton of carbon averted or removed by a project. The revenues from carbon credit sales support project implementation and the local communities that protect the ecosystem. To determine how much to offset, start by calculating the carbon footprint of your travel or business activities. Then, purchase carbon offsets equivalent to or exceeding your footprint.

Carbon offsets incentivize environmental conservation by making it financially attractive to project developers and local communities. “Rather than the typical conservation model of applying for grants, it’s a way of getting nature to pay for itself and demonstrating a value on nature that brings money in reliably and sustainably to the local community and to fund the restoration and conservation,” said Shilland.

Carbon offset projects employ a variety of approaches to create emissions reductions. Some projects protect existing blue carbon ecosystems or restore degraded ones. Other projects focus on forests. Carbon offset projects aren’t limited to nature-based solutions. They can also reduce fossil fuel use by funding renewable energy infrastructure or fuel-efficient cookstoves.

6. Becoming a legitimate, high-quality carbon offset project is an extremely rigorous process.

Not any conservation project can qualify as a legitimate carbon offset project. Shilland explained that before carbon credits can be sold, projects must be accredited by a third-party verification standard. To receive this accreditation, projects must meet a stringent set of criteria. This includes establishing that the carbon reductions would not have happened without the carbon offset project.

This begins with analyzing the current situation and quantifying the environmental harm that would take place in a business as usual scenario. Once a baseline is established, projects are carefully designed in conjunction with local communities to stop or reverse this degradation. This requires producing technical documents to detail how the project will be developed, designed, and run. The project plan also must detail how the local community will be engaged and consulted.

A man uses a measuring tape to measure mangroves
A community member measures mangroves being protected by the Mikoko Pamoja project. © Anthony Ochieng

This could mean getting “local people on board to change their activities and their habits and how they access firewood for example, to allow the mangrove forest to recover,” said Shilland, “And in doing so you demonstrate that your interventions have this carbon benefit.”

Once the project is underway, the actual results are compared to the baseline scenario to quantify this carbon benefit, i.e., the emissions reductions the project created. Before carbon credits are issued, an outside auditor checks that everything’s been done properly and the emissions reductions are real. The emissions reductions are then converted into carbon credits to be sold on carbon markets.

All in all, starting a carbon offset project requires a great deal of time and technical skills. This meticulous process ensures that projects are truly making a difference for both the planet, ecosystems, and communities.

A woman looks at growing mangroves in a field
Mangrove restoration by the Mikoko Pamoja project. © Anthony Ochieng

Sustainable Travel International offers an opportunity to actively fund carbon offset projects. We take extra care to ensure we are connecting our clients to the most impactful projects available. When you offset carbon with us, you’ll support our diverse portfolio of blue carbon, forestry, and energy projects. All of the carbon offset projects in our portfolio are accredited by third-party standards to verify their carbon reductions and undergo our proprietary due diligence process. Learn more about our project quality assurance here.

7. Projects funded by carbon offsets – like Mikoko Pajoma in Kenya – can create long-term and life-changing benefits for communities around the world.

Shilland and Juma both talked about Mikoko Pamoja, a carbon offset project developed by ACES which is supported by Sustainable Travel International’s portfolio. The Mikoko Pamoja project focuses on the protection and restoration of mangroves in Gazi Bay, Kenya.

Juma explained how the Mikoko Pamoja project emphasizes community involvement and empowerment to maintain lasting conservation: “We believe that conservation can only be effective if it benefits both the environment and the people. That’s why we work very closely with the local community to ensure that they have a stake in the management and protection of this valuable system,” he said. “We have made it our mission to empower locals to create positive changes by collaboration, innovation, and education. This collaboration creates a sense of ownership.”

Along with involving communities in the project implementation, carbon offset projects also allow communities in developing countries to access international finance. A portion of Mikoko Pamoja’s carbon credit revenues go towards initiatives that benefit the local community. “It’s a very sustainable and predictable source of income for the community,” said Shilland.

Juma explained how funding from the project has helped address water scarcity in the area by installing water towers and pipes. He also talked about benefits for education and health, including renovating classrooms and providing books and medication. These developments improve quality of life in local villages.

Young men rinse fruit under water
Community water supply improvements funded by carbon credit revenues from the Mikoko Pamoja project. © Anthony Ochieng

It is important for anyone purchasing carbon offsets to vet the projects in which they are interested. As Shilland mentioned, buyers should ask questions like: How does the project involve local people? Is there a sense of cohesion in the project, and between the benefits of the project and the locals? Do locals have a genuine stake in the project, rather than being a box to tick? By asking these crucial questions, buyers can ensure they support projects that positively impact local communities.

At Sustainable Travel International, we take these points into consideration when we vet projects for inclusion in our portfolio. We seek out projects that go beyond CO2 reductions and provide added community benefits in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By setting high standards, blue carbon ecosystems and the communities relying on them can be sustainably supported.

Mikoko Pamoja is just one example of a carbon offset project that conserves blue carbon ecosystems. You can support it and other projects through our program. Learn more about the different types of projects included in our carbon offset portfolio.

Supporting blue carbon ecosystems is up to all of us.

The tourism industry has an important opportunity and obligation to support blue carbon ecosystems around the world. Here’s two easy ways to get started:

  1. Check out our blog on blue carbon and Six Senses’ seagrass education resources to inspire your own awareness-raising activities.
  2. To help fund blue carbon projects, use our online carbon calculator to buy offsets online or contact us to launch your own business carbon offset program.

To get all the details on how to support these crucial ecosystems, watch our webinar: Betting on Blue Carbon.

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