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Guardians of the coast require protection


Mangrove conservation and restoration are crucial nature-based solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises

Mangroves are dense coastal forests covering the planet's tropical and subtropical belt. Although they account for only about 0.7 percent of tropical forests across the world, they play a vital role in maintaining the health of the human planet.

They serve as a protective shield for people and property along the tropical and subtropical coastal areas against storm surges, sea level rise, and extreme weather events. Mangroves are also one of the most effective carbon sequestration powerhouses, converting atmospheric carbon dioxide into organic carbon more than four times faster than tropical rainforests.

According to studies, the carbon stored in mangroves worldwide is equivalent to over 21 billion metric tons of CO2, but destruction of mangrove ecosystems would release the stored carbon back into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change even more. Between 2000 and 2012, global carbon emissions due to mangrove destruction might have reached as high as 317 million tons, or 24 million tons per year. If the world's 6,600 square kilometers of "highly restorable" mangroves were fully returned, over 1.3 billion tons of CO2 could be captured, which is equivalent to over three years of emissions for a country such as Australia. The contribution of mangroves to climate change mitigation should not be underestimated.

While mangroves, known as the "guardians of the coast", are protecting the planet on which mankind depends, they are deeply affected by climate change, overexploitation, invasive alien species, environmental pollution and other anthropogenic threats.

The Global Mangrove Alliance's report of the State of the World's Mangroves, released in 2021, showed that while there were approximately 136,000 sq km of mangroves worldwide in 2016, the area decreased by 5,807.2 sq km from what it was 20 years before, equivalent to about 4 percent of the mangrove area in 1996. The report also indicated that over 60 percent of global mangrove loss since 2000 had been caused by the direct or indirect impact of human activities, mainly in Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Another research points out that from 1980 to 2000, mangroves decreased by 20 to 35 percent worldwide, with an average annual reduction of over 1 percent, and only about 150,000 sq km remained by 2000. At this rate, almost all of the world's mangroves will disappear in the next 100 years if effective measures are not taken to protect them.

Fortunately, as awareness of the importance of mangrove ecosystems has increased in recent years, the potential and hope for mangrove conservation and restoration on a global scale has grown. Not only in China, but also globally, mangroves have changed from the fastest disappearing ecosystem to one of the best protected: 42 percent of the world's remaining mangroves are now within protected areas. The data in 2016 showed that the area of new mangroves exceeded that of lost mangroves that year, although only a small proportion of the new mangrove area came from artificial restoration efforts. This is an encouraging and positive sign.

There are approximately 6,600 sq km of highly restorable mangroves worldwide. One study estimates that restoring all of these mangroves will require an investment of roughly $11.1 billion over a period of 20 years after 2020. How to bridge this financing gap remains a challenge for the international community. Although global climate finance exceeded $579 billion in 2017-18, a 25 percent increase from 2015-16, coastal ecosystems, including mangroves, are being overlooked by global climate finance, with only $300 million of climate adaptation finance going to coastal ecosystem conservation, representing about 0.05 percent of the total global climate finance.

The good news is that progress has been made in exploring and identifying innovative ways to invest in mangroves. New financial mechanisms such as the carbon markets, blue bonds, as well as insurance and reinsurance products, will provide additional opportunities for mangrove conservation and restoration. "Hybrid" financing models that combine private capital with philanthropic or government grants are also being developed.

China is also actively exploring new financing mechanisms for mangrove restoration. In 2020, China began implementing a national action plan for mangrove restoration and exploring market-based mechanisms to promote mangrove conservation and restoration. To this end, the Ministry of Natural Resources has introduced an incentive to grant local governments more land for construction, equivalent to 40 percent of the area reforested with mangroves annually. According to estimates, this policy will draw billions of yuan from private entities and investors to participate and invest in mangrove conservation and restoration, which will, in turn, attract more institutional investors from the capital markets.

In June 2021, the mangrove reforestation project of Zhanjiang, Guangdong province, became the first blue carbon trading project in China, attracting private investors to participate in the conservation and restoration of mangroves. The project has become an important example of promoting the conservation and restoration of mangrove ecosystems in China. On April 28, Zhanjiang went a step further when the Zhanjiang Central Branch of the People's Bank of China, Zhanjiang Financial Supervisory Bureau and Zhanjiang Branch Office of China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission jointly issued China's first document on financial support for the conservation of mangrove and marine ecological areas--Guidance on Financial Support for Building a City of Mangroves in Zhanjiang. The guidance specifies that financial institutions should not only actively support the conservation and restoration of mangrove ecosystems, but also carry out financial innovation to help revitalize the "City of Mangroves", exploring and broadening financing channels from green credit, blue carbon, insurance, bonds and other aspects to meet the financial needs of building a "City of Mangroves".

The year 2022 is deemed to be a critical year for the future of mangroves. The 14th meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the COP 27 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the second phase of the COP 15 of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity will be held in 2022. Due to the strong linkages to the implementation of these conventions, mangrove conservation and restoration should be one of the priority topics at these conferences. It is time to include mangroves as a nature-based solution to the climate and biodiversity crises, setting ambitious but programmatic targets for mangrove conservation and restoration at these conferences backed up by financial commitments to ensure the targets are achieved.

The author is an advisor and director of the Wetlands Conservation Program at the Paulson Institute. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn.