WWF Kenya

Blue carbon markets: Africa must carefully balance risks and rewards

Africa’s productive blue carbon ecosystems offer climate mitigation solutions, but countries must guard against the exploitation of local communities.

Africa is suffering severe climate change blows along its coasts and inland, and needs urgent and innovative policy responses. Blue carbon markets are increasingly emerging as a mitigation solution for raising financing while preserving blue ecosystems. But African countries must approach these markets cautiously, aware of potential benefits and risks.

Blue carbon markets can help generate conservation funds for marine areas and life underwater. They can resist climate change by leveraging Africa’s mangroves, tidal marshes and seagrasses. Although still under development, blue carbon markets have huge potential to expand, along with awareness of coastal ecosystems’ role in carbon sequestration, and the need for funds to meet sustainability goals. These markets are bound to grow as industrial societies seek to offset their carbon emissions.

Blue carbon markets aim to reduce the carbon footprint through coastal restoration and preservation projects funded by the sale of carbon credits. Each carbon credit represents one tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions removed from the atmosphere. Entities purchase carbon credits generated from conserving and restoring coastal and marine ecosystems to mitigate climate change impacts. These transactions involve the amount of CO2 sequestered, measured in metric tonnes, and prices per tonne of CO2.

Africa is uniquely positioned to benefit. Its coastlines and shores possess some of the world’s most productive blue carbon ecosystems for marine life, and significant natural ‘carbon sinks’ that capture and store large amounts of carbon in their soil, roots, and plants.

Climate change is weakening the ocean’s natural carbon sinks, demanding urgent action

The ocean acts as humanity’s biggest ‘climate ally’ through two primary mechanisms – the solubility pump and the biological pump.

Through the solubility pump, the sea absorbs atmospheric CO2, converting it into dissolved inorganic carbon. This is taken deep down via mixing and ocean currents. While ecological systems regulate themselves, increased human-induced environmental changes have altered the solubility pump, causing the sea to absorb more CO2, impacting ocean circulation, marine ecosystem distribution and climate patterns.

The biological pump process involves phytoplankton (tiny ocean plants) converting CO2 into organic matter through photosynthesis. This organic carbon is moved from the ocean’s surface to its depths, where it’s stored away from the atmosphere for longer periods.

These processes are crucial for countries dependent on marine ecosystems for food and livelihoods. They support the overall health and productivity of the ocean by isolating carbon and maintaining the delicate balance of nutrients necessary for sustaining marine life and the industries that rely on it.

But climate change is weakening these natural carbon sinks. Urgent action and funding are needed, especially in developing countries where development priorities often trump environmental considerations.

In this situation, blue carbon markets could throw Africa a lifeline – or sink it. It’s too early to quantify the impact of this trade, so lessons should be taken from terrestrial carbon credit deals to avoid similar pitfalls.

There are four critical concerns. First, experiences with terrestrial carbon credit deals reveal that blue carbon initiatives might not equitably benefit all of Africa. Evidence from the green carbon project in Kenya’s Mau Forest shows how indigenous communities have faced eviction in the name of environmental protection. Time and again, these deals have led to the exploitation of vulnerable communities and concerns about low prices, land grabbing and ‘greenwashing’.

Terrestrial carbon credit deals often exploit communities through low prices, land grabs and ‘greenwashing’

The second concern is the lack of scientific clarity, transparency and credibility regarding blue carbon markets. As an emerging research field, local data may be lacking. Countries must invest in detailed empirical assessments and research to understand their existing blue carbon assets better.

Third, the commodification within carbon markets raises ethical concerns about who benefits. It risks restricting access to resources for artisanal fishers and coastal communities, undermining their livelihoods. It also threatens the intrinsic value of ocean resources, which shape the cultural identities of coastal and indigenous communities. Loss of fish breeding grounds like mangroves jeopardises food security. If not carefully monitored and managed, these initiatives may inadvertently result in abuse and violence against local communities.

Fourth, scepticism of blue carbon markets is rooted in the issue of climate injustice and global inequality. Some analysts describe carbon markets as a form of ‘climate colonialism’ as wealthier countries offset their emissions by buying carbon credits from poorer nations. But carbon markets won’t reverse the climate crisis if wealthier countries don’t break their addiction to fossil fuels. As such, these markets risk perpetuating inequality and exploiting resources in less developed regions.

Countries must invest in empirical assessments and research to understand their blue carbon assets better

Blue carbon markets aren’t necessarily harmful or exploitative. However African states must proactively maximise the benefits while minimising the risks for the African people, who should ultimately benefit.

Establishing national and regional centres of excellence dedicated to research, robust monitoring, and the use of modern technology strengthens the credibility of blue carbon projects. Kenya’s Marine and Fisheries Research Institute is one good example. Another is Kenya’s Mikoko Pamoja, the world’s first community-based project to sell carbon credits in mangrove conservation while promoting sustainable livelihoods. The project has been successful in conservation and enhancing community welfare.

To avoid climate colonialism and ensure climate justice and sustainable blue carbon management, it is vital to address power imbalances, enhance transparency and implement strong community safeguards. 

Inclusive climate finance approaches should prioritise social justice, environmental integrity and community empowerment. They should centre the voices of indigenous peoples, women and youth, and foster local buy-in and partnership to drive credibility and integrity.

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