Guiding principles for delivering coastal wetland carbon projects
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Study Number:



Stephen Crooks, Michelle Orr, Igino Emmer, Moritz von Unger, Ben Brown, Daniel Murdiyarso

Main Results and Conclusions:
  • Introduction to the state of knowledge of coastal blue carbon
    • Coastal wetland land-use conversion has a large impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Activities for which wetlands are converted include aquaculture, agriculture, industrial uses, urban development, damming, and eutrophication. The loss of coastal wetland habitats globally is rapid. The contribution of the conversion of wetlands to GHG emissions stems from the release of stored carbon during conversion, as well as the lost carbon sequestration potential from conversion. “On a per area basis, [coastal ecosystem] carbon stocks can exceed those of terrestrial ecosystems.”(6) GHG’s possibly released include CO2 (carbon dioxide), CH4 (methane), and N2O (nitrous oxide). Additionally, wetland habitats are susceptible to be negatively effected by sea-level rise if humans do not provide wetlands with enough space to migrate landward or if they do not have adequate sediment supply.
  • Lessons learned from previous projects
    • The learning curve
      • Consider small conservation projects that can be brought together to contribute to a larger conservation goal later on. Ensure restored landscapes include multiuse functioning for local communities, promote awareness of the landscapes within the communities, and establish local enforcement for land uses. Recognize the impact of climate change and specifically sea-level rise on land-use, and incorporate long-term accommodations into proposed land-use plans.
    • Broad lessons for wetland conservation and restoration planning
      • When planning a restoration, have clear goals and benchmarks to track progress. Also, acknowledge any constraints that might exist. Make sure to plan small scale projects while keeping in mind the broader landscape context and how they will complement other adjacent projects. Prioritize sustainability and the capacity of your project habitat to adapt to future climatic events and pressures. Conserve dredged sediment and incorporate sediment fluxes into the land-use plan, as sediment is an important resource in mitigating the impacts of climate change on wetland habitats. To do this, restore natural physical processes instead of controlling them. When planning, a project planner must try to have an understanding of the natural geomorphology of the site. This will help guide the project to restore “natural processes that drive the evolution towards a desired outcome.”(18) It is important to note that “the greater the disturbance, the greater the time frame and extent of the intervention required to rehabilitate the landscape.”(19) Be as aware as possible of existing ecological thresholds which can be reached over short or long timescales, and can interfere with expected project goals if not incorporated within the project plan. Again, plan the restoration project within the larger ecological context, as adjacent ecosystems can influence sites’ responses to ecological thresholds. Because of its dynamic nature, it can be difficult to asses the natural geomorphic state of a landscape, meaning the restoration of the landscape to a historic state may not always be possible. Additionally, make sure to avoid bringing non-indigenous species to the restoration area.
    • Lessons from carbon project development
      • “A comprehensive analysis combining technical, financial and legal issues and preparing the intervention in practical terms should precede the concrete planning and implementation phase in any project.”(22) Establish a project lead who takes ‘ownership’, and is responsible to the other parties. When selecting a site for restoration work, focus on “the level of exposure to degradation risks, the carbon output, tenure rights and permits, viability of access and control, risk of non-permanence, projected costs, and viability of action.”(22) Settle on a carbon standard for the project, and come up with a delivery cycle for your project, which includes steps for “validation, registration, State approvals, verification and certification.”(22) Entering the market early and exploring opportunities within the market will provide the most options for your carbon project. This may include finding buyers in both public and private sectors. Try to combine project funding channels, and be weary of the scale of the project. Make sure to have the proper capacity when scaling up the project, and decide when or if it is the right time to do so.
    • Lessons from community engagement
      • Community engagement is important to the sustainability of the project. You can take either a bottom-up, top-down, or better yet, a combined approach to community engagement. For a bottom-up approach, educate the community on proper management practices to empower them to make a difference on their own. Engage the community directly by introducing “sustainable livelihood programs and enterprise development that run concurrently with [any] habitat restoration.”(25) A top-down approach involves garnering support from various national, state, county or local-level institutions which do work in wetland restoration. Involve these organizations early on in the project lifecycle to maximize financial support, trust and cooperation, and ultimately bolster future advocacy. A combined approach incorporates stakeholders from multiple sectors and disciplines, including local leaders, academic institutions, members of the business community, and especially women from all areas. Improve the management system by modeling and constantly reevaluating aspects of the system. Grass-roots community involvement in a carbon project is essential, giving community members the ability to be intimately involved in the success and sustainability of a project.
  • Planning a blue carbon project
    • Type of project
      • A blue carbon project can include conservation and restoration activities. Conservation projects seek to protect environments which sequester carbon and to reduce or prevent future GHG emissions. Restoration projects try to reestablish or enhance a degraded ecosystem, again to promote carbon sequestration and prevent GHG emissions. Wetland restoration or conservation projects can be more involved than terrestrial projects because of increased demand for engineering and planning associated with flood management, infrastructure removal or construction, and accommodation for sea-level rise.
    • Preliminary feasibility assessment
      • Conduct a preliminary feasibility assessment of a project plan to identify all steps, potential pitfalls, and alternatives. Further assess alternatives if they appear to be feasible.
    • Carbon standard and methodology
      • Each carbon standard provides guidelines for GHG accounting, which is necessary for assessing project performance. A carbon standard should be decided upon at the onset of a project. When choosing a standard, consider the influence of climate change (i.e. sea-level rise), CH4 and N2O fluxes, and the interaction between nearby landscapes and the project area. One leading voluntary carbon market standard, which effectively covers wetlands, is the VCS. Also, establish project proponent(s) in line with the selected carbon standard, who will be the “natural-rights holder for the carbon asset.” There are five carbon pools which should be considered for a carbon project. They are “aboveground biomass, belowground biomass, deadwood, litter and soil carbon.”(35) It is important to distinguish between two different carbon fluxes for these pools. Allochthonus carbon is transported to a wetland after fixation offsite, while autochthonus carbon is sequestered onsite from the water or atmosphere. Some wetland projects will require monitoring sources and sinks of CH4 and N2O as well. The project proponent must establish project boundaries for the geographic extent, the timeline, carbon pools, and GHG’s involved. When determining the success or progress of a project it is important to establish a baseline scenario (i.e. what would happen in the absence of the project) to compare the project with. Initial conditions must also be recognized, from which both the baseline and project scenarios will progress. It is possible the project will not improve past the initial conditions but will only improve upon the baseline scenario. As a result of coastal carbon project activities, two types of leakage can occur: activity-shifting leakage and market-leakage. “Activity-shifting leakage occurs when activities inside the project boundary (e.g. mangrove deforestation) relocate outside of the boundary. Market leakage occurs when project activities affects an established market for goods (e.g. farmed shrimps) and causes the substitution or replacement of that good elsewhere.”(38)
    • Community engagement
      • Follow guidelines listed above
    • Designing the project
      • A well designed project effectively translates goals into activities. The project design should include a definition of the problem and the type of project (restoration or conservation), have specific goals to address the problem, identify baseline ecosystem functioning, and identify project constraints, alternatives, and stakeholders.
    • Non-permanence risk and uncertainty
      • The permanence of a carbon project is important to continue the carbon offset a project may provide. The susceptibility of a project to non-permanence could dictate which project activities are chosen in the first place. Wetland project permanence can be affected by human activities, as well as sea-level rise. It is important to account for these in any project plan. Note that “carbon standards offset the risk of non-permanence by issuing only temporary credits…or fixed (e.g. Gold Standard) or variable buffer withholding.”(40) There are three categories of risk factor for non-permanence: “internal, external, and natural risks.” The total risk assessment, assessed over a 100 year period, “should not exceed a value of 60%”.
    • Project finance and structure agreements
      • Conduct a “financial feasibility assessment” to evaluate the funding source(s) and the price of carbon credits relative to the costs of the project, considering the effect of possible public subsidy. Make sure to also conduct a legal feasibility assessment to ensure the project will follow proper legal channels, some of which may be outlined by the carbon standard. These UNEP guidelines recommend the “policy principle of ‘free prior and informed consent’ (FPIC), applicable to local landholders and communities.”(43) For legal purposes, it is important to designate who has control over the project and the project area. Establish whether planned land-use activities fall within local law regimes, and if not, work with local communities to govern the area. The project proponent must also respect private land ownership or claims. Confusion in the allocation of carbon rights can slow or stop a project progression. “‘Carbon rights’ refers to positive or negative greenhouse gas emissions resembling an intangible, abstract concept (not a standardized natural commodity), yet different from an individualized creation of mind (intellectual property).”(44) The project proponent should therefore look for credit precedents and whether credit regulations exists. Establish a contract between the buyer and seller of carbon credits, known as a carbon transaction, to identify the price of the credits and the method of payment.
    • Social and environmental changes
      • Ensure that all involved parties’ interests are upheld for the project duration, as the project will have social and environmental impacts for these groups and their interaction with the wetland ecosystem.
    • Regulatory compliance
      • A project must adhere to any regulations governing the wetlands and coastal ecosystems.
Works Cited:

UNEP and CIFOR 2014. Guiding principles for delivering coastal wetland carbon projects.         

United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi, Kenya and Center for International         

Forestry Research, Bogor, Indonesia, 57pp.