NUS at COP27: Unlocking the potential of blue carbon projects

Oceanic and coastal ecosystems, such as seagrass meadows and mangroves, are rich stores of carbon, but more research is needed before these habitats can start to supply carbon credits to global carbon markets. 

Current gaps in knowledge include understanding how different environmental conditions affect the rate at which marine habitats take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, said Professor Koh Lian Pin, director of the NUS Tropical Marine Science Institute (TMSI), during a panel discussion held on 14 November 2022 at the COP27 United Nations climate change conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

“We know the most about mangroves compared to other blue carbon ecosystems, but even then, there are still lots of knowledge gaps to be filled,” said Prof Koh. Blue carbon refers to the carbon captured and stored by marine and coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves, seagrass meadows or seaweed clumps. 

Natural habitats can help to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas driving global warming – in the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. As a result, protecting these habitats from destruction, or restoring degraded areas, could be a source of carbon credits, with each credit representing one tonne of emissions avoided or removed from the atmosphere. 

Credits from blue carbon projects or green carbon projects (such as a forest restoration effort) can be bought by emitters in other countries to reduce their carbon footprint. Because of this, it is paramount that emissions removals or avoidance be properly quantified, so as to ensure that the carbon credit trade truly benefits the climate. 

Yet, while there are methodologies to monitor, verify and report the carbon stored by land-based ecosystems such as forests, equivalent methodologies for blue carbon habitats are still nascent, Prof Koh noted. More studies are thus needed to develop similar standards for these environments, and unlock the potential of blue carbon projects, he added.

The interconnectedness of marine ecosystems

Prof Koh was speaking during a panel discussion, titled Carbon Prospecting in the Marine Realm, that was organised by TMSI at the Ocean Pavilion during COP27. The pavilion, led by two of the world’s leading oceanographic institutes – the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution – is the first pavilion at a UN climate change conference to single out the role of the ocean in tackling climate change. 

Other speakers on the TMSI panel included Mr Anshari Rahman, Vice President in the Strategy and Development Group at global investment firm GenZero, and Mr Peter Houlihan, Executive Vice President for Biodiversity and Conservation at non-profit organisation XPRIZE. 

Mr Houlihan said conservation efforts for blue carbon projects must take into consideration more than just a sole habitat in a single area, given that blue carbon habitats are all connected by the sea.

“Marine habitats are interconnected and interdependent. All of these environments are reliant on the success and the health of one another. If we have healthy ecosystems, we also receive healthy ecosystem co-benefits – carbon being one of them, but also biodiversity and livelihoods,” said Mr Houlihan.

Coral reefs, for example, are a refuge for creatures such as fish, sea slugs and sea turtles. In many places, including in the Southeast Asian archipelago, these habitats are also a major driver of ecotourism. On the other hand, mangroves can help communities living near them adapt to the impacts of climate change, such as sea-level rise. 

Investment decisions driven by scientific research

Other challenges faced by investors in deciding whether to establish blue carbon projects is whether these habitats can store carbon permanently, or whether the carbon will be released back into the environment when the habitats are disturbed, said Mr Rahman. Difficulty in managing free-floating habitats, such as clumps of seaweed, could also make it challenging to establish them as carbon projects, he noted. 

Mr Rahman said that the private sector depends on research efforts to inform investment decisions, citing the Carbon Prospecting Dashboard launched in September 2022 by the Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions (CNCS), a research centre under the NUS Faculty of Science also helmed by Prof Koh. 

“The dashboard is useful in providing a snapshot of blue carbon projects across different areas in Southeast Asia. It is useful for investors to have a quick overview, before we do our due diligence looking into these areas,” said Mr Rahman. 

The dashboard compiles the findings of multiple peer-reviewed studies by CNCS researchers, highlighting where additional forest and mangrove carbon projects could potentially be established. A new S$15 million research programme launched by CNCS at COP27, called the Carbon Market Integrity Research and Development Programme Singapore, will also help to improve estimates on carbon yield across Southeast Asia’s varied natural habitats. 

Prof Koh revealed that researchers at TMSI and CNCS will be looking to do more research into blue carbon potential in Southeast Asia.

“This is something we are investing heavily in at NUS, and we will continue to work closely with partners across the region to collect field data that will be useful in the development and validation of new models for monitoring, reporting, and verification of blue carbon.”


For more NUS at COP27 content, read the following articles:

NUS at COP27: Why the annual UN climate summit matters

NUS at COP27: Launch of new S$15 million research programme to improve the credibility of nature-based carbon projects in Southeast Asia

NUS at COP27: Putting nature to work in climate change solutions