Carbon is a chemical element found widely in the universe. It is the basis of our life. But what about ‘blue carbon’? Blue carbon is basically organic carbon i.e., something obtained mainly from decaying plant leaves, wood, roots, and animals. This blue carbon is captured and stored by coastal and marine ecosystems. Absorbing it is very important because as human activities are releasing a lot of greenhouse gases (GHGs), there is an excess of carbon accumulating in our atmosphere. This is causing global warming and the climate crisis, which is threatening our planet currently.
Our oceans, coasts, and forests naturally absorb or sequester the GHGs present in our atmosphere. Some of these forest areas have highly rich flora and fauna and are recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Sunderban National Park in West Bengal is one such site, famous for its Royal Bengal Tiger. In fact, the Sunderbans is also among the top five sites with highest stocks of blue carbon globally.
As per a latest assessment by UNESCO, IUCN, and the World Resources Institute, ten out of 257 forest areas in these ‘World Heritage Sites’ released more such carbon than absorbing them! The total carbon stored till now by these forests is approximately 13 billion tonnes. If all this stored carbon were to be released, it would be akin to emitting 1.3 times the world’s total annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.
Each year, these forests absorbed approximately 190 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. But between 2001-2020, satellite-derived data and site-level information revealed that ten such forests, including the Sunderbans (see photograph above) released more carbon primarily due to human activity and climate change. These activities included land clearance for agriculture; severity of wildfires owing to droughts; and extreme weather phenomena, such as cyclones.
The study urged strong and sustained protection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and their surrounding landscapes. This is needed to ensure that these forests continue to act as strong carbon sinks and stores for future generations. It also recommended an improvement in our landscape management policies to respond to climate change immediately.