A global blue carbon market that would create direct economic gain for those who protect ocean habitats is the main feature of a plan issued today by five United Nations agencies to improve the management of the world's ocean and coastal areas.
The "Blueprint for Ocean and Coastal Sustainability" says that the agencies intend to work with existing international carbon markets to define and implement a blue carbon market for protecting marine and coastal carbon sinks.
Oceans act as sinks for the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, CO2. In fact, the oceans are the largest active carbon sink on Earth, absorbing 26 percent of all CO2 emissions.
One reason for the oceans' big share of carbon is its biological pump, which removes carbon dioxide from the ocean surface, changing it into living matter and distributing it to the deeper water layers.
Out of all the biological carbon captured in the world, 55 percent is taken up at sea by marine living organisms, and so is called blue carbon.
At least half of this is captured by the ocean's vegetated habitats - mangroves, salt marshes, seagrasses, and seaweed. These plants cover less than 0.5 percent of the seabed, but play an important role in regulating the climate and mitigating climate change.
The five UN agencies that authored the Blueprint - UNESCO, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, the United Nations Development Programme, the International Maritime Organization, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization - warn that although the oceans account for 70 percent of the planet's surface, only one percent of that area is protected.
The agencies say they will work to create global acceptance of ocean and coastal habitats as a new form of tradable carbon market with a "global blue carbon fund."
The critical role of oceans and their ecosystems has been overlooked, the agencies say. They aim to ensure oceans and coastal ecosystems are not neglected at the upcoming Rio+20 conference scheduled for June 2012.
Mangrove forest on the coast of Yangjiang, Guangdong, China (Photo by Leo Zhu)
Their report emphasises that 60 percent of the world's major marine ecosystems have been degraded or are being used unsustainably, resulting in huge economic and social losses.
Mangrove forests have lost 30 to 50 percent of their original cover in the last 50 years while coral reefs have lost 20 percent, increasing the vulnerability of many highly populated coastal areas.
The ocean absorbs close to 26 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions. This is causing acidification of the oceans that is already threatening some varieties of plankton and poses a threat to the entire marine food chain and the human livelihoods that depend on the oceans and coastal waters.
"Some of these phenomena are not new but are aggravated by cumulative pressures such as climate change, intensified human activity and technological advances," the agencies said today.
Breaking wave at Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife, Canary Islands, Atlantic Ocean (Photo by Marc Pinter)
"Ecosystems situated in the deep ocean, where biodiversity and habitats often have major value, but are generally not well understood, have virtually no protection at all."
The international community pledged to tackle these challenges at the United Nations summits in Rio in 1992 and Johannesburg (in 2002.
But the commitments made there remain ineffective and their objectives have not been met, the UN agencies acknowledge. Neither the pledge to restore fish stocks to sustainable levels by 2015, nor the promise to create networks of protected marine areas by 2012 have been met.
Few countries have adopted legislation to reduce land-based marine pollution,which has led to an increase in the number of dead ocean areas, the report finds. More than 400 marine areas have been listed as "biologically dead."
"The full implementation of many of these goals and targets will require further efforts by states, intergovernmental organizations and the international community," write the authors.
They claim the present situation is the result of insufficient political will and resources, inadequate institutional capacities, insufficient scientific data and market imbalances.
"Greening the Blue Economy will be science and technology driven," they conclude. "But success will depend on sound policy processes and effective institutional arrangements and will therefore require commitment and funding from the international community as well as nations and industry."