Off the coast of Virginia, vast prairies of seagrass sway in the shallows. In the past two decades, conservation scientists have shed more than 70 million seeds in berries, restoring 3600 hectares (9,000 acres) from an ecosystem devastated by disease in the 1930s. Work brought back eelgrass (Marina of Zostera) – a keystone species that supports crustaceans, fish and scallops, and now absorbs the equivalent of almost half a metric ton of CO2 per hectare per year.
Now the Virginia Nature Conservancy is aiming to turn those tonnes into carbon credits that they can sell for cash.
The collaborative project– with plantings done by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and the Nature Conservancy, and long-term carbon data provided by the University of Virginia – is the first herbarium project in the world to seek certification Carbon Credit from Washington-based nonprofit Verra, the world’s largest supervisor of carbon credit projects. “It’s a proof of concept – it’s the important part here,” says Christopher Patrick, director of the VIMS seagrass restoration and monitoring program. “We are not going to change the global climate with this one project. But we can show that this is 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 streak of blue that many predict will soon become a flood. So far, Verra has issued a grand total of just under 970,000 credits (representing 970,000 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalents) to blue carbon projects. But mangrove projects are now on a spectacular scale, with only one aiming to absorb millions of tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. And scientists are working hard to account for carbon in other types of ecosystems – seagrass, salt marshes, seaweed and seabed sediments – so they too can enter the market.
The rules allowing these other ecosystems to claim credits are new. In 2015, Verra released its first methodology to allocate funds for the restoration of tidal wetlands and seagrass beds, but only Last september Verra has expanded its rules to cover wetland conservation. It was “a really big deal,” says Jennifer Howard, director of marine climate change for Conservation International. “I know of at least 20 different projects right now that are all trying to grow and get to market over the next two years. I think we’re going to see a big explosion.
“The market is small but growing exponentially,” acknowledges marine ecologist Oscar Serrano of Edith Cowan University in Perth, who helped to catalog capacity for Australia’s blue carbon stores in climate change mitigation.
Amy Schmid, environmentalist and responsible for developing natural climate solutions for Verra, says, “There is a strong demand for blue carbon credits.” Shipping and tourism companies are keen to reinvest in conserving the landscapes they impact, she says, while offsetting their own emissions. And many of these projects offer win-win-win stories for people, biodiversity and carbon, which increases the price organizations can get for their credits on the open market. Companies including Geneva-based MSC Cruises and Apple have been very vocal about their blue carbon purchases and plans.
Carbon credits have has been around since the late 1990s; It has long been possible to offset, for example, your wedding emissions in California by buying carbon credits by planting trees in the Amazon. Along with Verra, other nonprofits that have sprung up to write the rulebook and keep records of carbon credit projects include the Geneva-based Gold Standard and Edinburgh-based Plan Vivo.