Why the Market for ‘Blue Carbon’ Credits May Be Poised to Take Off

Seagrasses, mangrove forests, and coastal wetlands store vast amounts of carbon, and their preservation and restoration hold great potential to bank CO2 and keep it out of the atmosphere. But can the blue carbon market avoid the pitfalls that have plagued land-based programs?

Off the shores of Virginia, vast meadows of seagrass sway in the shallow waters. Over the past two decades, conservation scientists have spread more than 70 million seeds in the bays there, restoring 3,600 hectares (9,000 acres) of an ecosystem devastated by disease in the 1930s. The work has brought back eelgrass (Zostera marina) — a keystone species that supports crustaceans, fish, and scallops, and is now absorbing the equivalent of nearly half a metric ton of CO2 per hectare per year.

Now, the Virginia Nature Conservancy is aiming to turn those tons into carbon credits that it can sell for cash.

The program, run by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy, is the first seagrass project in the world to apply for carbon credit certification with the Washington-based nonprofit Verra, the world’s largest overseer of carbon credit projects. “It’s proof of concept — that’s the important part here,” says Christopher Patrick, director of the VIMS seagrass restoration and monitoring program. “We’re not going to change global climate with this one project. But we can show it’s a viable approach.”

If successful, it will join a handful of other blue carbon credit projects around the world, the vast majority of which are mangrove restoration efforts — a trickle of blue that many anticipate will soon become a flood. So far, Verra has issued a grand total of just under 970,000 credits (representing 970,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalents) to blue carbon projects. But mangrove projects are now ramping up dramatically in scope, with one alone aiming to soak up millions of tons of CO2 equivalents a year. And scientists are working hard to account for the carbon in other ecosystem types — seagrasses, salt marshes, seaweeds, and seafloor sediments — so they, too, can enter the market.

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