The ‘blue carbon’ market comes to Europe: restore some Cadiz marshes to offset company emissions | Climate and Environment

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Las Aletas is one of those unfulfilled industrial promises that mark the recent history of Cádiz. But, before it was that barren land that overlooks a highway, it was part of the 5,000 hectares of artisanal salt flats that for more than 2,500 years enriched the bay of Cadiz. It is poetic justice that one of the floodplains of that polygon that was left to nothing is now pushing to become the first European market for blue carbon emissions. More than 365 hectares located in the Bahía de Cádiz Natural Park are looking for companies that want to compensate for the pollution they generate by acquiring bonds that make possible the environmental restoration of areas that are now degraded.

The marshes of the Bay of Cádiz are a unique ecological space, modeled by man for use as salt marshes and estuaries, since the Phoenicians settled in the area. “Here nothing is natural”, summarizes the director of the park, Rafael Martín. So many centuries of anthropization have created a labyrinthine landscape of pipes and canals into which the Atlantic Ocean penetrates with each tide and which sustains a rich biodiversity of plant, poultry and marine life. It is no coincidence that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has chosen just this enclave to develop LIFE Blue Natura, a project funded by the European Union that will be the first to create a blue carbon market in the eurozone.

Salt crystallizers in a saline in Puerto de Santa María that is still active.
Salt crystallizers in a saline in Puerto de Santa María that is still active.JUAN CARLOS TORO

Coastal ecosystems such as that of Cádiz have been capturing between three and five times more carbon than a terrestrial forest for millennia, according to the IUCN. In these seagrasses, wetlands and mangroves, this atmospheric CO₂ accumulates underground – the so-called blue carbon – and there it can remain, unless the degradation of the natural environment ends up releasing stored greenhouse gases into the sea or the atmosphere. And that is precisely the problem that is beginning to be pressing in the Bay of Cádiz, where deterioration ravages part of the 5,000 hectares of the park, after the popularization of refrigerators for food preservation meant that, of the 140 salt flats that They operated in the area between the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with only five operating today. This fall in the saline economy has caused the clogging of these intertidal areas, until they are relegated to dry and vacant land or dumps.

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“Until now, blue carbon markets were focusing on mangroves in developing countries. The project is the first in Europe that complies with a regulatory mechanism with an administration and seeks financing among companies ”, reasons Mar Otero, coordinator of the marine program and blue economy at IUCN-Med. The key to this legal leg is the Andalusian Emissions Compensation System (SACE), of the Andalusian Climate Change Law, which already enables companies to compensate their CO2 emissions through reforestation and conservation plans. With this umbrella, the project has quantified the blue carbon deposits in Andalusian coastal ecosystems and has created a standard system to verify carbon credits and project catalogs in which to apply them.

From mangroves to salinas

International carbon offset markets have been operating for years under the umbrella of organizations such as Verra, a non-profit organization in the United States. In them, buyers, usually companies, participate without there being a legal obligation in order to offset those emissions that they are not capable of completely eliminating and as a form of corporate social responsibility. However, it is not so common for this purchase and sale to be made under the regulated umbrella of an administration, says Soledad Navarro, coordinator of LIFE Blue Natura of the Junta de Andalucía.

The first two, as a pilot, will be in the Bay of Cádiz and in the Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park (in Almería, where it is planned to intervene on 11 hectares) and the project will have a 50-year permanence. In the case of the Cadiz salt flats, the 365-hectare area of ​​action is subdivided into two: one in the dried marshes of Las Aletas (Puerto Real) and another on the north bank of the Guadalete River. The idea is to invest 345,042 euros in Cádiz that will be used “to recover the movement of water with the tides through channels and to replant local species”, as Otero explains at the foot of the second area to intervene. With this, researchers from the CSIC and the University of Cádiz have calculated that the total carbon dioxide capture will be 106,367 tons.

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Reaching that conclusion was not easy. Since the project started in 2016, much of the effort has focused on characterizing the areas to be intervened and quantifying their capacity as sinks. To do this, the CSIC’s Aquatic Macrophyte Ecology Group (GEMA) carried out tastings with which it was able to extract the seagrass strata and the humus that it generates in roots, rhizomes and organic matter. “The key was to know how much carbon had accumulated and estimate how much they accumulate each year,” explains Miguel Ángel Mateo, head of the GEMA.

The University of Cádiz, a partner of LIFE Natura, has also set up an artisanal salt mine as a business incubator for entrepreneurs to learn the artisan trade of salineros.
The University of Cádiz, a partner of LIFE Natura, has also set up an artisanal salt mine as a business incubator for entrepreneurs to learn the artisan trade of salineros.Juan Carlos Toro

With all the scientific data, the project has already set out to search for potential buyers. “They are ecosystems with great added value and the fight against climate change is carried out locally, not in third countries,” explains Navarro. And so he defended it in recent days in a first meeting with Spanish companies such as Navantia, Eulen, Cepsa or Cosentino, according to the expert. On the other hand, Joaquin Durán, corporate coordinator of the Environment at Navantia, confirms the interest of his company: “We are aligned with the challenge of decarbonization in 2040. We do not plan to carry out large-scale compensation for now, but it is important for us from an environmental point of view and as an impact on the environment ”.

Those responsible for LIFE Blue Natura trust that these two pilot projects in Cádiz and Almería are just the beginning of a much broader blue carbon market. For now, if Durán’s interest materializes and spreads among other companies, 365 hectares of the Bay of Cádiz will come back to life. Salicornias, microalgae, shrimp, gilthead sea bream and flamingos —to name just a few of the species that populate the muds, the water and the sky of the marshes— will give a good account of this. And, by the way, you will remember that the hand of man, sometimes, feels good to nature. Let them tell the old salineros.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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