The Ria Formosa will «serve as a model» for the pioneering project of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in the area of Blue Carbon, developed in partnership with CCMAR – University of Algarve and ANP | WWF – Associação Natureza Portugal.
Ao Sul Informação, Rui Santos, CCMAR researcher responsible for the scientific part of this project, explains that the most important wetland in the Algarve will serve as a model, since there is already an «entire system mapped, samples to evaluate, and carbon rates», something that now wants to visit other coastal areas of the country.
In addition to the Ria Formosa, in the Algarve, the Sapal de Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santo António Natural Reserve, the Arade estuary and the Ria de Alvor are also part of the project. In the rest of the country, the Ria de Aveiro, Lagoa de Óbidos, the Tagus Estuary Natural Reserve, the Sado Estuary Natural Reserve and the Mira estuary are covered.
According to the researcher, the project consists of mapping all marine and coastal ecosystems with the potential to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in quantities greater than that of forests, so that, afterwards, “the voluntary carbon market in Portugal can be boosted”. ».
In this mapping, carried out from north to south of mainland Portugal, the ecosystems will be characterized (location, size, condition in which they are found, annual rate of carbon sequestration, among other characteristics), in order to define the appropriate protection and restoration measures. .
The objective will also be, as Rui Santos explains, «to make companies in Portugal able to invest in this type of solutions, based on Blue Carbon ecosystems».
«This is a market that still exists in few places in Europe and that Gulbenkian now wants to boost in Portugal, for. in the future. there is a mechanism that companies can use to mitigate CO2 emissions», explains the researcher, stressing that, although the retention of carbon dioxide by forests is the best known, marine ecosystems sequester carbon at a much faster rate (eight to thirty times higher), being retained in sediments for hundreds of years, which also gives them the potential to mitigate climate change.
«Although they have a small area, it is good to invest in them because they are very efficient and the idea is, here in Portugal, to evaluate what can be done in this regard», he continues.
In addition to preserving these areas, the project aims to restore as many as possible.
«It is something that we have to actively start doing and we are still not doing, which is to select and restore coastal areas where these ecosystems already existed and no longer exist», emphasizes Rui Santos, noting that, after the study, the areas will be proposed to invest.
«The ultimate goal for Gulbenkian is this: to invest in natural systems that sequester CO2».
Although, in recent years, some studies have managed to prove that it is possible to reverse the situation of degradation of ecosystems, the researcher recalls that «the historical trend is towards degradation», namely in the Algarve.
«The Ria Formosa, for example, had a much larger area that, over the years, was occupied by construction and human activity. There is enormous pressure on these coastal ecosystems, which, now, with the knowledge we have, we need to stop and alert decision-makers to preserve these ecosystems – for all their functions», highlights the researcher.
The Gulbenkian Foundation project is thus the first to invest in this national Blue Carbon portfolio, funding a pilot conservation or restoration project in one of these marine areas, in order to offset the volume of the Foundation's non-mitigable carbon footprint in 2021 (2.238 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, which include greenhouse gas emissions from electricity or heat purchased and consumed).
· Blue carbon is the term used to designate the carbon captured and stored by marine and coastal ecosystems, ie, it refers to the amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by these ecosystems and promotes the reduction of the impact of greenhouse gases ( GHG) in the atmosphere.
· Mangroves, seagrass, salt marshes and kelp forests are the currently recognized coastal ecosystems with the greatest potential for mitigating the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. In Portugal, of these three ecosystems, there are only no mangroves – they are typical ecosystems of tropical climates.
How important is it to conserve or restore these marine ecosystems?
The rates of carbon capture by marine ecosystems are much higher than that captured by terrestrial ecosystems. It is therefore a natural-based solution to climate change.
The ability of marine ecosystems to capture and store large amounts of carbon is due to their high rates of photosynthesis (which absorbs CO2 producing organic matter) and the ability of their sediments to decompose organic matter very slowly and limit the production and emission of CO2 back into the atmosphere.
Despite occupying much smaller areas than those occupied by terrestrial forests on the planet, they sequester carbon at a much faster rate (at least eight times faster) than it is retained in sediments for hundreds (or even thousands) of years, which gives them enormous potential to mitigate climate change.
These ecosystems also serve as a buffer zone for the impacts of coastal storms – they reduce the risk of flooding, contribute to water quality and support biodiversity, for example – thus acting as a high-impact solution for adapting to changes. climate.
However, climate change itself is affecting these ecosystems. Extreme weather events, rising sea levels or rising temperatures can damage systems, leading to a huge amount of retained carbon being emitted back into the atmosphere, so the restoration of these ecosystems is urgent and essential.