States Harness Coastal Wetlands to Meet Climate Goals

California, New Jersey, and North Carolina lead in using nature to counter threats to coastal communities

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States Harness Coastal Wetlands to Meet Climate Goals
 A marsh with mostly water in the foreground and mostly seagrasses beyond is tranquil in the soft light of sunrise or sunset, which gives most of the seagrasses a golden hue. The sky is partly cloudy.
Sunlight casts a golden hue on a salt marsh in Middle Township, New Jersey. Since 2018, the state has enacted initiatives to leverage the power of nature to help fight climate change. Salt marshes are among coastal wetlands that sequester and store significant amounts of carbon.
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As the consequences of climate change continue to unfold across the U.S.—including through intensifying floods, droughts, wildfires, and sea-level rise—many states are leveraging the power of nature to lock away carbon and help counter climate-related threats. In coastal areas, healthy wetlands serve as natural buffers against flooding and storms, while also supporting fisheries, recreational activities, and enhanced water quality. Coastal wetlands—salt marshes, tidal forested wetlands, and seagrass meadows—can also sequester more carbon per unit area than terrestrial forests. The carbon sequestered and stored in these coastal habitats is known as blue carbon.

While reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be the top priority in the fight against climate change, governments should also include nature-based solutions where they can. One way to implement nature-based solutions is to incorporate the protection and restoration of coastal wetlands into state climate action plans, which outline the strategies and policies needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate impacts. To guide states interested in developing such strategies, The Pew Charitable Trusts hosted a webinar in late April highlighting ongoing coastal wetland initiatives in California, New Jersey, and North Carolina.

The webinar—attended by about 100 representatives of state and federal agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and research institutions—was the latest offering by the Blue Carbon Network, an informal cohort Pew established in 2022 to strengthen connections among professionals working on blue carbon at the state level.

While each of the three states is taking its own approach to advance conservation of blue carbon as part of their broader climate agendas, the speakers identified common themes in their successes, such as collecting and leveraging scientific data and forming partnerships to conserve and restore these habitats.

California

Catalyzed by a 2020 executive order by Governor Gavin Newsom, the California Natural Resources Agency developed a Natural and Working Lands (NWL) Climate Smart Strategy in 2022, which proposed measures to use the state’s natural and working lands—such as forests, farmland, grasslands, and wetlands—to mitigate and build resilience to climate change.

Gov. Newsom then signed a sweeping law that made California the first state to mandate targets for nature-based solutions in its NWL strategies. These targets, released on Earth Day 2024, include measures to protect and restore 233,600 acres of California wetlands and seagrasses, and other stipulations to help coastal wetlands survive sea-level rise.

“Be bold,” Clesi Bennett, senior environmental scientist with the California Natural Resources Agency, advised states considering similar programs. “The targets we set were not constrained by funding, were not constrained by land ownership or regulatory authority, or anything else. They were based on what the science was telling us we need.”

New Jersey

Since 2018, New Jersey has rolled out initiatives that integrate nature-based solutions into its climate policies. During the webinar, Joshua Moody, a coastal wetlands and restoration research scientist with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, highlighted steps the state has taken, including establishing a NWL strategy and re-entering the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), an effort involving 11 East Coast states to cap and reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The state’s RGGI Strategic Funding Plan includes efforts to “promote blue carbon in coastal habitats” as one of four primary initiatives eligible for the almost $700 million the state’s participation has generated since it re-entered the initiative in 2020.

“We’re developing programs that explicitly call out blue carbon as a primary strategy for carbon sequestration,” Moody said. Central to New Jersey’s efforts to integrate blue carbon into decision-making is developing mechanisms such as the Coastal Ecological Restoration and Adaptation Planning Tool and the state’s blue carbon calculator, which enables officials to estimate the carbon-reduction contributions of restoration projects and identify areas that will maximize carbon sequestration benefits.

North Carolina

In North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper’s 2018 Executive Order 80 called for integrating climate considerations into state operations and policies and required development of a NWL Action Plan and Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan.

The resulting NWL Action Plan recognizes how improved land management—including the state’s tidal wetlands and seagrasses—enhances carbon sequestration and drives additional benefits, such as flood protection. These efforts have fueled other initiatives, such as North Carolina’s implementation of the South Atlantic Salt Marsh Initiative, a partnership of more than 350 representatives from the Department of Defense and other federal, state, and local agencies, community members, and scientists, which aims to conserve 1 million acres of salt marshes stretching from North Carolina to northeast Florida.

“The state’s Salt Marsh Action Plan is a five-year strategy to protect, restore, and allow for the migration of salt marshes in coastal North Carolina to minimize loss through 2050 and beyond,” Jacob Boyd, salt marsh program director at the North Carolina Coastal Federation, said during the webinar.

Boyd also noted that North Carolina is one of the first states to incorporate seagrasses into its comprehensive greenhouse gas inventory, which allows officials to track how natural and working lands, alongside other sectors like transportation and electricity, can help the state meet its climate goals. Data from that inventory was a key component that allowed the state to include coastal habitat conservation and restoration projects in its application for a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Climate Pollution Reduction Grant, which would fund projects to protect and restore high-carbon coastal habitats.

Two other initiatives—the North Carolina Coastal Carbon Collaborative and the North Carolina Resilience Exchange—also have brought together experts and land managers to help communities understand their needs and identify solutions, Boyd said.

Efforts help states meet climate goals

State-led efforts to conserve and restore blue carbon ecosystems can help advance climate goals while enhancing community resilience. By prioritizing nature-based solutions that include protecting and restoring coastal wetlands, these three states are leaders in harnessing the power of nature to achieve ambitious climate goals. Pew applauds the groundbreaking work these states are undertaking and urges others across the country to follow suit.

Alex Clayton Moya is an officer and Jazmin Dagostino is an associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. conservation project.

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