June 18, 2024

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UK Plans Natural Capital Markets For Marine Protection

6 min read

The ocean could provide up to 3 billion tonnes of the 5 billion tonnes of emissions removal needed to reach net zero. Yet ocean heat records have been broken every day over the last year, and there is an urgent need to understand the risks and opportunities in ocean function and fund their protection.

The UK believes that natural capital markets is the way to do this, and a blueprint for how to set them up has just been launched. High Integrity Marine Natural Capital Markets in the UK: A Roadmap for Action is intended to create a mechanism for investors and corporations to invest in projects that provide a flow of benefits – from resilient communities, clean water, nature recovery and biodiversity as well as carbon sequestration, based on a consistent flow of funding for marine nature protection.

The economic role of oceanic ecosystems

The health of the marine environment, whether in deep ocean, the continental shelf or coastal areas, can have a huge economic impact. The global ocean economy was valued by WWF in 2015 at around $1.5 trillion per year, making it the seventh largest economy in the world, with its value expected to double by 2030 to $3 trillion. At the same time, the total value of ocean assets (natural capital) was estimated to be $24 trillion.

Yet marine and coastal ecosystems are increasingly being threatened by growing pressures including rising temperatures, development, certain fishing and aquaculture practices, water pollution and other anthropogenic impacts. The failure to understand the impact on value of unattributed externalities like pollution, over-extraction and growing sea-water acidity, mean that action is not being taken to protect that value.

Such value can also be attributed at a national level. Caroline Price, head of nature and environment at The Crown Estate, said: “The UK’s marine natural and coastal ecosystems play a critical role in underpinning our economy, health and wellbeing. Our coasts, estuaries and offshore waters contribute an estimated £47 billion to the economy and support over 500,000 jobs.”

Part of the challenge in addressing the destruction and degradation of the marine and oceanic environment is that oceans are not specifically covered under international environmental treaties, such as the climate-focused Paris Agreement or the Global Biodiversity Framework, which is intended to help protect and restore ecosystems. In fact, today only 1% of global climate finance is spent on the ocean.

If the ocean has been excluded from environmental treaties many, including Annick Paradis, executive director at investment and advisory firm Pollination, think that robust markets are needed to increase capital flow to support global climate and nature goals.

UK to focus investment through natural capital markets

The UK is now moving towards the establishment of such high-integrity marine natural capital markets. A partnership between The Crown Estate, Blue Marine Foundation, Crown Estate Scotland, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Finance Earth and Pollination, has outlined a series of recommendations providing a blueprint for how to unlock investment in the protection and restoration of marine and coastal ecosystems.

The goal is to find new ways to funnel finance and build resilience within the UK, and Paradis argues that natural capital markets provide a route to leverage payments for ecosystem services and unlock much-needed private finance where public and philanthropic funding is often stretched.

She says: “Across the UK, those markets can build more resilient supply chains, bolster food security and create jobs in the UK’s coastal communities. To realise this vision, diverse stakeholders will need to collaborate to boost investor confidence by demonstrating projects on the ground work in practice. This will require a sustained effort, but done right, will help to deliver scale for marine natural capital markets in the UK and abroad.”

Elizabeth Beall, managing director, Finance Earth, adds: “There are a range of actions needed – and many already underway – from the development of new marine focused codes to provide rigour and ensure high integrity impact is delivered, to piloting seascape approaches to restore and protect our vital marine and coastal ecosystems. The Roadmap brings all of the required actions together to outline a cohesive plan to ensure we are all rowing together in the same direction, which is the only way we will meet our 2030 targets.”

Robust research is required to underpin markets

If natural capital markets are to be part of the solution, its imperative that they are deployed in the right way. Price says: “We understand that in order to realise the potential of natural capital markets in the UK and overcome the barriers to their implementation, we need to present a coherent pathway towards achieving the seven recommendations laid out in the report.” One of the most important underpinnings is going to be a robust and deep understanding of how the marine environment sequesters carbon, and how climate change will affect its functions with regard to carbon and heat storage, marine biodiversity and oxygen generation.

Understanding ocean processes is a relatively new process. One of the longest running ocean research programmes, Ocean Seascape, has only been in operation since 2002. It uses a suite of oceanographic and meteorological instruments, located onboard Royal Caribbean Group ships to track the structure of currents, sea surface temperature, carbon dioxide concentrations, and salinity taken along the repetitive ship routes. All of these allow scientists to monitor changes on scales of seasons, years, and even decades. The program helped verify for the first time that ocean acidification – a reduction in pH over an extended period of time caused primarily by uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – was occurring in the Caribbean Sea but at varying rates.

There is so much more information needed for natural capital markets to be effective. Carbon sequestration and storage by mangrove, saltmarsh and seagrass ecosystems has been valued to be worth up to $190 billion per year but this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of effective research. Continental shelf seabed habitats comprise almost 8% of the ocean floor, and yet there is little understanding of the carbon sequestering capacity of these vast areas – which could provide sequestration opportunities up to ten times the size of the Amazon.

Gabriella Gilkes, program manager for the Convex Seascape Survey – a five-year global research project to generate data and insight on how to manage the ocean sustainably to maximise its carbon storage capabilities – says “The ocean covers 70% of the earth’s surface and makes up 95% cent of the planet’s biosphere, making it the largest area capable of capturing and storing carbon. But where is that carbon? How did it get there? Where did it come from? And what is the role of life and biodiversity on ocean carbon storage? These are the questions we are hoping to be able to answer with our research.”

In December 2023, the Convex Seascape survey reported initial research showing that different types of creatures living in and on the seafloor muds all play essential roles in drawing carbon from the water and burrowing it into the seabed – an unprecedented level of information on the potential for such animals to store carbon. The most recent fieldwork from Scotland mapped how the burrowing behaviour of little-known sea creatures disturbs sediment, known as “bioturbation”. Critically the research showed the amount of carbon having increased on previous efforts by 150%. Is this due to increased levels or carbon, or simply that we didn’t know enough before?

Properly managed marine science is going to play a fundamental role in underpinning any natural capital market for marine ecosystem services. And there is clearly a great deal to learn about the ocean, let alone its carbon sequestration potential. What is clear is that the benefits of the ocean, from supporting life through air and food, to trapping heat and absorbing CO2, is not being factored into any of our understanding of how the world works. And if we’re going to be successful in navigating the challenges of climate and sustainability, that is going to have to change.

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