COP26 is the 26th annual conference on climate change. Representatives from 196 countries are meeting in Glasgow in the first two weeks of November to figure out exactly what we must do to minimise the extent of climate change on the environment and society. UN agencies, intergovernmental organisations and charities will also be there to lobby for their causes. With the recent release of the IPCC sixth assessment, which stated that climate change really is ‘a code red for humanity’, the conference is the world’s best opportunity to limit emissions and tackle the climate change crises together before it is too late [1].  

A previous conference in 2015, COP21, resulted in the Paris Agreement which has led to many countries pledging to keep global warming beneath 1.5 degrees Celsius. Six years later, one of the main aspects of COP26 is to secure global net-zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach.  To limit a global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, global greenhouse emissions need to decrease by 45% compared to emissions in 2010. This can only be achieved by major policy changes, e.g., phasing out coal power, stopping deforestation, switching to electric vehicles, and investing in renewable energy. 

Undoubtedly, COP26 will have a large focus on technological solutions to ever-increasing carbon emissions. However, it’s important to consider the important role nature could have in saving itself from man-made global warming. How society adapts to protect communities by restoring natural habitats is becoming increasingly acknowledged as a huge and important part of the climate change solution jig-saw. Indeed, one of the stated aims of COP26 is to protect the natural environment as much as possible, including the protection and recovery of vulnerable ecosystems. 

While the UK has committed to a 30 by 30; a pledge to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030 [3], unfortunately, many of the protected areas in our seas lack the necessary management, monitoring and resources to deliver positive outcomes for our wildlife, habitats or climate. You may be asking, how does protecting the sea decrease carbon emissions in the atmosphere? The short answer is – Blue Carbon, the carbon that is taken out of the atmosphere and stored by the ocean and coastal ecosystems. 

Blue Carbon and protecting our seas 

The idea of blue carbon has been around for a while; however, we’ve only recently realised that over 50% of organic carbon sequestration occurs in the sea! To break it down, much of the man-made carbon dioxide is eventually locked away in the marine ecosystems, decreasing its concentration in the atmosphere. Most of this happens in coastal ecosystems such as mangrove forests, seagrass beds, shellfish reefs, kelp forests and tidal marshes.  

Seagrass bed (c)Bernard Picton

Northern Ireland is a small place with a big (and very productive) coastline! We have phenomenal marine resources that provide a lot more than fish. In fact, over 30,000 tonnes of carbon each year is locked away as blue carbon. Although this is already a great contribution to carbon storage, we could massively increase it by carefully managing and protecting blue carbon habitats [4]. 

Seagrass for example, takes in carbon dioxide by photosynthesis and when it eventually dies, the carbon is locked away in the sediment. The healthier the blue carbon habitats, including seagrass beds, the more carbon they are capable of locking away for potentially thousands of years. While, many human activities and even climate change itself can disrupt blue carbon habitats and therefore their ability to lock away carbon[5], luckily, we still have time to protect these ecosystems, tackling the biodiversity and climate crises in one fell swoop. Investing in protecting these areas truly could be a win-win situation – benefitting humans by storing carbon as well as providing vital biodiverse habitats in Northern Ireland’s waters. 

To find out more about blue carbon and the ways in which our natural environment can help us tackle climate change visit www.ulsterwildlife.org/blue-carbon

By Kate Mooney, Living Seas placement student at Ulster Wildlife



[1] https://www.ipcc.ch/assessment-report/ar6/ 

[2] https://ukcop26.org/cop26-goals/ 

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/global-ocean-alliance-30by30-initiative/about 

[4] https://www.ulsterwildlife.org/sites/default/files/2021-05/Blue%20Carbon%20Habitat%20Restoration%20in%20Northern%20Ireland%20-%20Exec%20Summary.pdf 

[5] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-11693-w