Climate change and the Philippine seas: Unlocking blue carbon solutions for a cooler planet

Protecting and growing blue carbon ecosystem—such as mangroves, tidal marshes, and seagrass meadows—offers a way to fight climate change. How is the Philippines, an archipelago blessed with many mangrove forests, doing this?

Children plant mangrove saplings in the Philippines
Children plant mangrove saplings in San Francisco on the Camotes Islands in the Philippines, where mangrove forests protect the islands from tidal waves, strong winds and storm surges. Image: UN ISDR, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It was 2014 when I first set foot in an island community called Nasingin in Bohol province. Nestled just below Banacon island, Nasingin is home to at least 2,400 people. The whole community stretches 1.7km long and I was able to walk around in less than 15 minutes. The ground, made from dirt and coral, disappears twice a day when the high tide comes in.

I visited Nasingin on a research mission to get the locals’ notions of climate change. Constantly battered by fierce typhoons, sea surges, and strong winds, the community knows that nature’s course has changed drastically in the last few years.

Artemio Vergara, chief of the peoples’ organisation, eagerly showed me around. It didn’t take long for me to realise that the community lives in poverty—freshwater supplies are scarce, livelihood options are limited to fishing, and heads of households usually go to neighbouring towns in search for jobs and better opportunities.

But despite these conditions, Nasingin has something that they consider a treasure: the 300ha mangrove forest cover that frames their island, protecting it from harsh winds and the unfriendly sea.

According to Vergara, the mangrove forest is a result of collective community action.

“I was 12 years old when we started planting mangroves. Local chieftains here consider this a priority and as years passed, we were able to grow this mangrove forest,” he narrated.

Nasingin often faces destructive typhoons along with sea surges and strong winds. When disaster strikes, nobody can go fishing. Economic activities are disrupted and most families are forced to go hungry. During these trying times, they turn to their mangroves.

“It has always protected us. The mangroves act as a barrier between us and strong waves. That’s why we’re still here. When we couldn’t go out to fish, we usually find shellfish in the mangroves and that’s enough to help us survive,” shared Maria Luz Sagarino, a community member and a mother of four.

The 300ha mangrove that cradles the community not only provides valuable protection against the forces of nature, it is also a lifeline for residents of Nasingin. The forest cover serves as a breeding ground and nursery for various species of fish, shellfish, and marine animals—most of which can be viable sources of livelihood and sustenance.

And with climate change increasing the likelihood of extreme weather disturbances, Nasingin’s mangrove forest will prove to be a valuable resource not only to the community but to its neighboring towns as well. 

The Philippines as a frontrunner for blue carbon solutions

The Philippines, as an archipelagic country, hosts a significant portion of the world’s mangrove stocks. According to this report by PEMSEA, the East Asian region alone accounts for four million ha of mangroves—roughly 30 per cent of the global total. The country has the third largest mangrove ecosystem at 0.26Mha, after Indonesia’s 2.71Mha and Malaysia’s 0.56MHa.

These mangrove cover are extremely important in addressing climate change. Research conducted by the Nature Conservancy and IHCantabria for the WAVES program of World Bank found that mangroves help reduce flooding for 613,000 people annually, 23 per cent of whom live below the poverty line. Mangroves are also responsible for saving as much as US$1 billion in residential and industrial property damages. If mangrove forest cover can be reverted back to their 1950s level, added benefits will be felt by 267,000 people, 61,000 of whom are living in extreme poverty condition.

On top of these, mangroves are efficient in sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere. The PEMSEA report underscored that East Asia’s mangrove stocks hold 8.8 billion tons of CO2 and collectively, these mangrove ecosystems sequester 22.4 MMt CO2 from the atmosphere.

Mangroves are part of coastal blue carbon ecosystems—an umbrella term used to describe mangroves, tidal marshes, and seagrass meadows that can sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store these for hundreds of years. These ecosystems, aside from sequestering carbon, provide rich breeding grounds for fish stocks, contribute to the filtration of sediment, and ensure the protection of coral reefs from erosion and flooding.

It is essential to unlock blue carbon solutions to help cool down the planet. Experts agree that for humanity to survive, global temperature levels should not increase by more than 20C. As such, a 1.5-degree increase in global temperature still brings in catastrophic events: more frequent extreme weather disturbances, sea level rise, stronger and longer spells of drought and El Niño, and the extinction of flora and fauna. Mangrove ecosystems, with its proven capacity for carbon sequestration, can be leveraged in a way that strongly supports a country’s achievement of its NDC towards meeting this global goal.

The Philippines, as one of the countries that ratified the Paris Agreement in 2016, has identified the potential of blue carbon solutions in climate change adaptation and mitigation. In fact, the country is one of the five countries that explicitly used this term in its Nationally Intended Contribution (NDC).

In its NDC, the Philippines agreed to “about 70 per cent of emission reductions by 2030 relative the business-as-usual (BAU) scenario.” To achieve this, the country highlighted the role that marine ecosystems play, citing blue carbon potentials.

The threat to blue carbon solutions

Despite their valuable contribution to climate change mitigation, coastal ecosystems around the world are threatened by anthropogenic activities, with over 800,000ha destroyed per year. When these ecosystems are destroyed, they release enormous amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere, further contributing to the rise of Earth’s temperature.

According to this policy brief by Nature Conservancy, halving the annual loss in coastal ecosystems would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 0.23 GT per year—an amount equivalent to the 2013 emissions of Spain. Further, if wetlands are to be restored to their 1990 cover, potential carbon sequestration can amount to 160Mt CO2 per year—enough to offset 77.4 million tonnes of coal burned. In terms of protecting communities against climate-related disasters, the paper posits that 100 metres of mangroves are enough to reduce wave height by as much as 66 per cent.

Mangroves help reduce flooding for 613,000 people annually, 23 per cent of whom live below the poverty line…[and save] as much as US$1 billion in residential and industrial property damages.

Local communities, blue carbon solutions towards a cooler planet

The 2020 deadline for limiting global temperature increase to 1.5C is fast approaching and there is a need to act now. The Philippines is strategically endowed with massive assets towards blue carbon solutions.

Measures should be in place to ensure that local communities take the centrestage in managing and protecting their resources. In the case of Nasingin, the community was awarded a certificate of stewardship from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources that grants them the authority to plant, manage, and protect their mangrove forest. The agency and the community also entered into a Community-Based Forestry Management (CBFM) contract to ensure that the community will always have the agency and power over their resources.

Communities should always be in the spotlight in scaling up blue carbon solutions. Technical assistance through capacity building and livelihood programmes should be made available to them. As such, the government, together with academe, should identify and value indigenous approaches to blue carbon solutions and develop these for replication.

Lying in the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Philippines is constantly battered by nature’s forces. Climate change continues to threaten the country’s vulnerability and proves to be a multiplier in the social pressures that it is currently experiencing. However, the Philippines has a lot of solutions under its belt—blue carbon solutions being one of these. Addressing climate change lies in ensuring the well-being of our people and making sure that they have the capacity to survive and thrive in these trying times.

Val Bugnot is Communications Officer of the ICLEI Southeast Secretariat.

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