Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Conscious Conservation Methods: Tracking Blue Carbon and Environmental Justice at COP26

Guest blog post by Liz Plascencia, Yale School of the Environment

Liz Plascencia (L) with Point Blue Working Lands Research Director & Principal Soil Ecologist Chelsea Carey, and CEO Manuel Oliva at COP26. Photo courtesy of Liz Plascencia.

Imagine this – you started graduate school in the midst of a pandemic, and you only recently started going to class in person (socially distanced and masked, of course), but the bulk of your time has been spent on Zoom in your tiny studio. This was me. So, one could easily imagine the elation that I felt following the announcement that COP26 had the “Green Light” for our school.

As a first-generation student and master’s candidate at the Yale School of the Environment, I am interested in the intersection between climate change solutions and environmental justice concerns. Growing up in a redlined community in Los Angeles, I have witnessed the legacy effects of locally unwanted land uses (i.e., chemical manufacturing, landfills, freeway intersections, and wastewater treatment plants) within low-income, communities of color. My plan for COP26 involved tracking how environmental justice conservations were coupled alongside climate change adaptations plans, considering the known disproportionate effects of climate change onto marginalized communities.

After over a year and half of a global pandemic, growing social justice movements in the US, and record setting droughts and wildfires; the sense of urgency to gather and discuss the intersectionality of the climate crisis felt unparalleled. In order to make my experience worthwhile at COP26, I found myself searching for an organization that I could support and volunteer my time with during these critical two weeks in Scotland. Thankfully, I identified Point Blue Conservation Science as an official observer NGO on the UNFCCC website. I was immediately drawn to Point Blue’s science-driven methods and theory of change. I also admired their regional approach to conservation in my home state of California.

During Week 1 of the conference, I focused on tracking blue carbon side-events and adjacent environmental justice conversations. Blue carbon refers to the organic carbon that is captured and stored in coastal vegetated ecosystems such as tidal salt marshes, seagrass meadows, and mangrove forests. In addition to sequestering carbon, coastal blue carbon ecosystems offer a plethora of co-benefits such as protection from storms and sea level rise, prevention of coastal erosion, and providing critical habitat for key fisheries.

Unfortunately, blue carbon ecosystems are among some of the most threatened in the world due to mangrove deforestation, agricultural runoff, marine pollution, and urban coastal development. Therefore, protecting and restoring coastal blue carbon ecosystems offers a significant opportunity to employ a nature-based solution to climate change, while also tapping into the multitude of co-benefits that these ecosystems provide.

Indigenous Forum at COP26. Photo by Liz Plascencia.

However, we must recognize that much of the world’s blue carbon ecosystems are currently being co-managed informally by tribal or indigenous groups in developing countries. In fact, countries with the highest densities of mangrove forests include Indonesia, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, Malaysia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Cuba, India, Bangladesh, and Mozambique.[1]

As blue carbon markets begin to take shape, it is essential to consider the environmental justice concerns facing the possible displacement of indigenous people from their native land through the deployment of a “fortress conservation” ethic. A conscious conservation model must consider site-specific national and local governance structures, land ownership relationships, and intangible cultural values superimposed onto the land, in order to ensure an equitable conservation project.[2] Tune into more perspectives from the International Indigenous People’s Forum on Climate Change Pavilion at COP26 here.

Following COP26, Seychelles, Belize, and Costa Rica included coastal wetlands (mangrove, seagrass and saltmarsh) protections in their updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). A recording of this announcement at COP26 can be watched here.

It is clear to me that coastal blue carbon has garnered the attention of the international negotiations on climate change. My hope is that the future of blue carbon management and conservation efforts will center the rights and livelihoods of the indigenous groups who also rely heavily on the health of these ecosystems. After all, a just climate change solution should not perpetuate the colonial effects of traditional environmentalism.


[1] The Blue Carbon Initiative, 2021.
[2] Locatelli, T., Binet, T., Kairo, J.G. et al. Turning the Tide: How Blue Carbon and Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) Might Help Save Mangrove Forests. AMBIO 43, 981–995 (2014).