Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Blue Bayou Climate Solution

It's been said that rainforests are the lungs of the world. In fact its tiny photosynthetic algae in the ocean that account for over half the oxygen we breathe. The oceans are the drivers of weather and climate, the generators of rain and storms. The top two feet of the sea contain as much heat as the entire atmosphere. But the oceans are also among the most susceptible environments when it comes to feeling the impact from anthropogenic -- that is to say human generated -- atmospheric carbon (See my Sept. 22 blog 'Bad Acid Trip').

To date much of the discussion on solutions to rapid climate change and ways to reduce our carbon dioxide outputs have focused on industrial sources and on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. The burning and clearing of global forests is the second largest source of human generated carbon after the burning of fossil fuels.

However, on October 14, the United Nation's Environmental Program released a report on "Blue Carbon," showing that as much as 7 percent of the carbon dioxide reductions needed to keep atmospheric concentrations of CO2 below 450 parts per million (the still too-high figure diplomats at the Climate Summit in Copenhagen are aiming for) could be achieved by restoring carbon sequestering mangrove forests, salt marshes, and seagrass beds around the world's ocean shores.

These key marine habitats, along with coral reefs, act as the wildlife nurseries of the sea and provide protection from storm surges and tsunamis and filter and purify coastal waters, so protecting them would also provide additional benefits beyond fighting climate change. That's the good news. The bad news, while covering only about .5 percent of the world's oceans and coasts, they are among the most endangered habitats on earth, being destroyed by coastal development, commercial shrimp farms, bottom dredging and fishing trawls, runoff pollution and landfill.

In a strange and disturbing symmetry the U.N. report suggests that while these habitats could reduce our carbon pollution 7 percent their present rate of loss is also around 7 percent annually so that many of these productive brackish and salt water domains could be gone by 2020.

The report warns there is an immediate need to mainstream an ocean agenda into the climate negotiations now taking place in Copenhagen and to develop a global Blue Carbon Fund equivalent to what's been discussed for the reduction of emissions from deforestation and degradation (a REDD Fund). The report doesn't suggest a particular funding mechanism. Luckily I have an idea.

Almost all these Blue Carbon habitats exist in the territorial waters of coastal nations many of who already generate revenues by leasing their offshore waters to foreign fishing fleets and oil and gas companies. In the United States multi-billon dollar royalties are paid to the U.S. Treasury by the offshore oil and gas industry for operating on our public seas. This revenue stream shifts between the second and third largest source of government income after taxes and in close competition with custom tariffs, generating some five billion dollars a year.

Beginning in the 1960s a large part of these offshore revenues went to support the Land and Water Conservation Fund that offset the negative impacts of offshore drilling by buying up parks and wilderness areas for coastal protection and recreation. This was before we understood that oil drilling also represented a product liability issue. This product, used as directed, overheats your planet.

Today, along with land-based solar, wind, geothermal and other green energies a new sector for clean non-carbon production is emerging in offshore wind and tidal power, wave, current and ocean thermal energy conversion. As with oil and gas these offshore industries will be operating on public waters and subject to state and federal royalty payments.

It would make eminent sense if the public revenues generated by this new climate clean marine energy were used for a dedicated Blue Carbon Fund that would protect and restore carbon sequestering coastal wetlands, mangroves and seagrass meadows.

A recently established 'Blue Climate Coalition,' made up of marine scientists and conservationists from around the world is advocating for a range of funding mechanisms while also seeking increased scientific research funds to better understand the role these 'Blue Carbon' habitats play in regulating our climate.

Large scale restoration in the United States doesn't need to wait on the emergence of a clean-energy boom offshore however but could start immediately if we'd implement existing (though to date largely unfunded) federal and state commitments of over twenty billion dollars for the reestablishment of 'America's Wetland,' the rapidly declining salt marshes known as the Louisiana Bayous, also the recovery of the seriously degraded Chesapeake Bay Estuary and the extensive Florida Everglades, 'river of grass.' These are public works projects that could quickly generate 'shovel ready' jobs for unemployed workers while also protecting us from the worst impacts of climate change.

Saving our Carbon Blue habitats is just one practical way we can start taking climate action while also helping restore the living blue part of our blue marble planet. Like Rahm Emanuel says, 'No crisis should go to waste.'

David Helvarg

David Helvarg