Coral reefs, mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrasses found along shorelines all over the world form a critical bridge between land and sea, providing a home for countless species and a wealth of vital ecosystem services.
But these coastal habitats are in jeopardy. According to National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine at least a third of their combined area are lost to development, poor land use practices, and other threats since 1950. Scientists predict that by the next century, mangroves and coral reefs could completely disappear and that 30 to 40 percent of the world’s tidal marshes and seagrasses will be gone.
Such loss would have major consequences beyond these habitats. The nutrient-rich waters and complex structures formed by mangrove roots, coral reefs, and the canopy of seagrass meadows make them ideal nursery areas for a range of species. Snappers, groupers, certain species of sharks, shrimp, crabs, and many others use coastal habitats as nurseries.
These coastal regions also provide invaluable services for people, including protecting and improving water quality, absorbing harmful runoff from land-based activities such as farming, acting as buffers against sea level rise and coastal erosion, and bolstering food security by serving as spawning and nursery grounds.
While such vital and biodiversity-rich ecosystems clearly deserve protection, there’s another urgent reason to safeguard them now: Coastal wetlands have substantial capacity for long-term carbon storage and can thus, in conjunction with emissions reductions, help lessen the impacts of climate change. In fact, mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrass beds are global carbon stores, capable of storing three to five times more carbon in their soil than terrestrial forests do—an ecosystem service that governments can recognize and protect within their commitments to the United Nations’ 2015 Paris agreement.
Governments are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of robust ocean ecosystems to the health of our planet, and momentum is building in the global community to protect at least 30 percent of the ocean by 2030. Safeguarding coastal habitat as part of that effort will help to ensure a more resilient ocean into the future.
When 185 countries signed the Paris agreement, they promised to take meaningful, measurable action to combat climate change through “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), which must include strategies for reducing carbon emissions and building resilience to climate change effects. Ambitious NDCs are now critical to meeting the goals of the Paris agreement.
NDCs also present many countries with an opportunity to better protect their coastal habitats, which science shows are key “nature-based solutions” in addressing and adapting to climate change. In short, improving protection of these areas also counts toward fulfilling global climate change commitments—and that also means a host of climate-related political and financial initiatives, such as the World Bank’s Green Climate Fund, can back up these protections once they are in place.
The Pew Charitable Trusts will be working to build partnerships within countries that have coastal ecosystems to support strong commitments to their protection. In doing so, we hope to demonstrate how coastal habitat protection can be a component of addressing climate change, in support of the Paris agreement’s goal to prevent warming above 2 degrees Celsius and to strive for no more than 1.5 degrees during this century.
The ocean and coastal habitats have always been key in maintaining the health of our planet. It is time for governments to fulfill their global commitments to mitigate climate change through measures that lead to a low-carbon economy, and to protect their valuable habitat and biodiversity before these ecosystems and all the benefits they convey disappear.
Simon Reddy directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work to protect coastal wetlands and prevent ocean plastics.