COP26 leaders have blue carbon ‘blind spot’

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UK and Scottish governments are under pressure at COP26 to tackle the climate crisis by setting out how they will start counting and protecting carbon-rich habitats in our seas.

Campaigners say that while each government has set out a host of actions they will take on land as part of their COP26 positions, the marine environment is barely considered, despite holding some of the world’s largest carbon stores.

‘Blue carbon habitats are not currently counted in the UK’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory,’ said Our Seas, an alliance of Scottish organisations that support a move to sustainable use of the country’s coastal seas.

It continued: ’83 per cent of the global carbon cycle is circulated through the ocean. Over 80 per cent of Scotland’s land mass is underwater and marine carbon stores known as ‘blue carbon’ are known to hold more carbon than Scotland’s peatlands and forestry combined.

‘World leaders at COP26 have pledged to end deforestation by 2030. However, marine carbon stores are not currently analysed within the UK’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory which means that governments are overlooking both increases in these stores and losses from them due to habitat degradation when reporting on their national emissions.’

Ailsa McLellan, coordinator for the Our Seas coalition, added: ‘Marine habitats are carbon-sequestering powerhouses. If we are not protecting and counting the blue carbon in our seas, this leaves a dangerous blindspot in the way governments make decisions about activities in our seas. It’s time we counted blue carbon, reinstated a limit on damaging methods of fishing and put future generations first.’

Philip Taylor, head of policy from Open Seas said: ‘There is a massive marine hole in the way that we measure our country’s contribution to climate change. Scottish ministers do not currently have powers to decide on the inventory and that’s why we’re calling on the Secretary of State at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Kwasi Karteng MP to urgently establish a system of accounting for losses of blue carbon and blue carbon habitats within the greenhouse gas inventory and a timeline for its implementation.

‘Scotland’s Climate Plan requires that blue carbon habitats are given general protection by policies in the National Marine Plan, but this is simply not happening. Every year we lose more of these habitats due to the poor regulation of highly industrialised fishing methods such as scallop dredging which scrape across the seafloor. For decades a hidden crisis of deforestation at sea has been unfolding – we need to start counting blue carbon.’

The vast majority of marine carbon is locked up in seabed sediments and, whilst the scale of the impact is still being studied, scientific research suggests these stores are at risk from bottom-trawling, a fishing method which drags heavy fishing gear across the seabed. One study estimates that the amount of carbon released from the seabed to the seas from bottom-trawling globally could be equivalent to releases of carbon from the aviation industry to our atmosphere.

Bally Philp, national coordinator of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, said: ‘The existing paradigm of fisheries management needs to shift to better account for the importance of blue carbon. We need to make a rapid transition to low impact fisheries in both Scottish waters and around the world. Many of the decisions governments are making about our seas are not climate-smart and are undermining the long-term viability of our coastal fishing communities, due to the inadequate regulation of industrial trawling that is degrading marine carbon stores.’

Other seabed habitats, such as oyster beds and flame shell reefs are known to have one of the highest carbon sequestration rates of all marine and terrestrial habitats. Maerl beds in Scotland are estimated to sequester the equivalent of around 0.002 mega-tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. If allowed to recover to former range this sequestration could be significantly increased.

However, a scientific assessment reveals that these living habitats are being rapidly damaged and lost. The Scottish Government’s Marine Assessment has estimated that at least 18 hectares of maerl bed habitat was lost in Scottish seas between 2010 and 2020. Campaigners say that scallop dredging is to blame for much of this habitat loss.

The vast flameshell reef in Loch Alsh covers 75 hectares and is safeguarded within a Marine Protected Area (MPA), but many equivalent seabed habitats are known to exist outside of MPAs and are therefore still vulnerable to further degradation. Communities around Scotland are taking action to regenerate marine habitats by native oyster restoration and seagrass planting projects.

Danny Renton, from Craignish Restoration of Marine & Coastal Habitat CROMACH and Seawilding said: ‘Governments around the world need to empower communities to solve the climate crisis and recover the habitats within our seas. Huge seagrass and native oyster beds can lock up carbon and if we restore habitats like these, it can make a real contribution to mitigating climate change as well as restoring lost biodiversity.’