If restoring carbon in oceans and halting deforestation could be accomplished in concert, it could result in up to a 25 percent reduction in emissions. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)
While the world scrambles to save its remaining forests in a bid to address the problem of global warming, researchers are diving into the deep blue sea to present oceans and marine ecosystems as a vital but lesser-known solution to climate-change issues.
With around 17,000 islands and 110,000 kilometers of coastline, Indonesia is the world’s largest island country, which makes it particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by global warming.
Created in 2009, Indonesia’s Research Agency for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (BRKP) has already started the quest for scientific proof that the country’s water areas can absorb carbon and eventually help arrest global temperature increases.
“This [research] is still in its early stages. We’ve so far only focused on the biological aspects and haven’t yet looked into other aspects, like the influence of weather, physics and chemical [reactions],” said Gellwynn Yusuf, the head of the research agency.
Gellwynn said the agency had been monitoring the presence and level of chlorophyll — the green pigment present in all green plants that absorb carbon dioxide and releases oxygen through the photosynthesis process — in the oceans through satellite imaging.
“From the results, it is clear that oceans absorb carbon, but we haven’t studied how long the carbon will stay in the oceans before being released back into the atmosphere,” he said.
During an international meeting of ministerial heads in Nusa Dua, Bali, last week the United Nations Environmental Program released its assessment of the ability of oceans and coastal areas to absorb carbon.
The report, titled “Blue Carbon : The Role of Healthy Oceans in Binding Carbon,” says that coastal vegetation, such as mangrove forests, salt-marshes and meadows, also known as blue carbon sinks, could store between 235 teragrams and 450 teragrams of carbon per year — the equivalent of half the emissions from the entire global transportation sector, estimated at around 1,000 teragrams of carbon per year.
If restoring carbon in oceans and halting deforestation could be accomplished in concert, it could result in up to a 25 percent reduction in emissions.
Jacqueline Alder, director of the UNEP’s Marine and Coastal Branch, Division of Environmental Policy Implementation, said: “Initially, we wanted countries to relate to [ocean] issues, especially for coastal vegetation, because these habitats are much easier for people and policy makers to understand.”
“Mangroves, sea marshes and other coastal vegetation are the biggest absorbers [of carbon],” she said. “So, better to concentrate on coastal habitats because there are multiple benefits. If you can restore and preserve mangroves, the benefits would be also include better fisheries and better flood control.”
However, Alder said researching oceans was not easy because different species absorbed different amounts of carbon.
“Seawater itself actually absorbs carbon, even more if it is cold. If you look at the northern part of Europe as opposed to Antarctica and Canada, it absorbs [carbon at] different rates,” she said. “But those issues will be looked at in the second phase [of research].”
Riza Damanik, coordinator of Indonesia’s Fisheries Justice Coalition (Kiara), takes a more skeptical stance on the issue. She said the assessment only opened the door to speculative carbon trading for oceans because there was a lack of strong scientific proof that oceans here could absorb and hold carbon.
“For Indonesia, it would be very reckless to address a carbon-trading mechanism for oceans because our oceans are in high-temperature tropical areas,” he said.
Former Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Freddy Numberi told the World Ocean Conference in Manado, North Sulawesi, last year that Indonesia’s oceans could absorb 66.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year and coastal areas could absorb an additional 245.6 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.
Gellwynn, however, said there were no discussions yet about entering carbon trading.
“It took more than a decade to prove that forests could absorb carbon,” he said. “What we are doing is just a beginning, so I’m not talking about selling ocean carbon yet.”