Rapid decline of blue carbon in Southeast Asia due to human activity


The blue carbon sources such as mangrove belts and sea grasses in Southeast Asia are facing significant losses. (Photo: iStock)

Southeast Asia’s beaches have long captivated tourists’ attention, yet few have recognized another potential of its vast coastline: the ability of its rich marine life to reach carbon neutrality.

The ocean system, comprising tiny phytoplanktons to mangrove belts and sea grasses, can store up to five times more carbon than tropical forests. However, according to Siti Maryam Yaakub, senior director at International Blue Carbon Institute, its huge natural potential is being rapidly depleted.

Urgent actions needed to preserve blue carbon

Blue carbon, known by scientists as carbon stored in ocean systems, is abundant in Southeast Asia, which boasts one of the largest such sources. But the region is also experiencing significant losses of this potential due to human activities such as aquaculture.

In Southeast Asia, the two main blue carbon ecosystems are mangroves and seagrass habitats. Mangroves are essentially forests that grow in the interface between the land and the sea, while seagrass are underwater plants that grow in brackish and shallow water.

Siti pointed out that the region has been lax in preserving its blue carbon potential. “For example, lots of mangroves in Sumatra and Java are quickly being converted into shrimp farming, and there’s also conversion into palm oil,” she said.

Indonesia is home to over a third of the world’s mangroves, and there are also mangrove belts in the Philippines and Cambodia. Siti also noted that many poverty-stricken areas cut down mangroves to use them as firewood for cooking, while steady erosion is occurring due to the impact of climate change.

Even wealthy nations like Singapore have lost a lot of mangroves over the years due to land reclamation for urbanization projects, she said.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in Singapore. Singapore have lost a lot of mangroves over the years due to land reclamation. (Photo: iStock)

Gradual recognition of the potential of blue carbon

Siti emphasized that the marine systems need to be protected for their potential because they cannot only absorb carbon within the plant biomass but also in the soil sediments.

She mentioned that around 71 countries possess three of the richest blue carbon sources – mangroves, seagrass and salt marshes – yet only half of these nations have included coastal and marine nature-based solutions in their initial nationally determined contributions.

The Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) is a climate action plan aimed at reducing emissions and adapting to climate impacts. Each party to the Paris Agreement is required to establish an NDC and update every five years.

About 13 years ago, the potential for blue carbon in climate mitigation was first recognized by the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change. Since then, it has been slowly gaining recognition by countries.

“Blue carbon is a relatively new kid on the block, whenever we hear about nature-based climate mitigation, everyone thinks of forests,” said Siti.

Balancing with emission reduction efforts

Souparna Lahiri, climate and biodiversity policy adviser at the Global Forest Coalition, said that developing blue carbon should be a priority for governments. However, it should go together with efforts to simultaneously reduce carbon emissions from industries and other sources.

He also cautioned that benefits derived from developing such ecosystems should not be used for trading in carbon credits, as it could undermine climate goals.

“Marine ecosystems are excellent carbon sequesters, and they traditionally should have been protected. But you should not seek to develop them for the purpose of trading carbon credits, which would allow industries to offset their emissions,” he said.

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