Conservation vs. Restoration Activities for Blue Carbon Projects
Coastal blue carbon ecosystems face unprecedented threats from development, climate change, agriculture, forestry, and other human causes. When blue carbon ecosystems are destroyed or degraded, we lose critical carbon stores and globally important biodiversity, benefits from ecosystem services, and livelihoods.
Blue carbon projects relieve the pressure on coastal ecosystems through ecosystem conservation, restoration, or both. However, what is the difference between conservation and restoration, and which is better in the context of blue carbon?
What is conservation?
Conservation is the long-term protection of ecosystems and their biodiversity from degradation or destruction. Ecosystem conservation avoids the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that would otherwise occur in a business-as-usual scenario. In other words, conservation projects maintain intact ecosystems that face a real and probable threat of degradation or conversion to another land use.
For example, when a company acquires permits to cut down a forest for development, the forest faces an actual and immediate threat of deforestation. A project that protects this forest from being cut down would be considered a legitimate conservation project.
The existence of a genuine threat is a central part of ensuring conservation projects are eligible for earning carbon credits. Suppose the project site is not likely to be degraded or destroyed without the support of a carbon project. In that case, it is unnecessary and does not require carbon financing.
Projects that conserve forest ecosystems—often including mangroves—are called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation plus sustainable forest management (REDD+) projects. The international development community, the United Nations, environmental and climate mitigation programmes, and many prominent carbon standards use the REDD+ label to refer to forest conservation broadly. For more information on REDD+, see Fair Carbon’s REDD+ article.
Some carbon standards further distinguish between two types of REDD projects:
- Conserving sites with legal permission to be degraded
- Conserving sites without legal permission to be degraded
For example, a project site with a permit to convert mangroves to agricultural land faces a legal threat of degradation. In contrast, a project site used for illegal logging faces an illegal or unplanned threat.
Figure 1: Avoiding Planned vs Unplanned Deforestation and Degradation
A site eligible for Avoiding Planned Deforestation and Degradation.
(threatened by legal, regulated deforestation or degradation)
A site eligible for Avoiding Unplanned Deforestation and Degradation.
(threatened by illegal, unregulated deforestation or degradation)
Conservation and the Verra Verified Carbon Standard (VCS)
The Verra VCS divides REDD activities into:
- Avoiding Planned Deforestation and Degradation (APDD); or
- Avoiding Unplanned Deforestation and Degradation (AUDD)
“Planned” refers to a legal threat of deforestation or degradation, and “unplanned” refers to illegal or unreported threats of deforestation and degradation.
Similarly, conservation activities occurring in tidal wetlands [Conservation of Intact Wetlands (CIW)] activities allow for either:
Verra projects must provide legal documentation to prove degradation is planned, such as a site development permit. Similarly, projects pursuing Avoiding Unplanned Degradation may establish a local pattern of ecosystem degradation by using existing data to demonstrate that illegal degradation is occurring at similar sites in the same area. Projects may also prove that unplanned degradation or deforestation is occurring within the project site already.
Considerations for Conservation Projects
There is a misconception that ecosystem conservation means fencing an area off and leaving it alone. In fact, conservation requires active planning, management, and monitoring of a site to ensure the preservation of the whole ecosystem throughout the project cycle. How a site is best conserved depends on the site conditions, the needs of local communities and stakeholders, and the resources available to the implementing organisation. Often, conservation projects require active security or stewardship, outreach and education to local users, and create alternative resources and livelihoods to prevent future degradation.
In addition, planning where conservation takes place is equally important as deciding how to manage a conserved area. Choosing a site that is “easy” to protect, such as a remote area or one without commercial value, may not have the same cultural or conservation value as protecting a site of importance to a local community or one with an endangered species.
Several international efforts aim to increase global ambition on conservation, including calls for 30% of land and sea to be protected by 2030 (called 30 by 30). Today, only 15% of coastal ecosystems remain intact, and only 8% are considered protected; the other 85% have been degraded or lost due to coastal development and human exploitation. Conserving intact nature is crucial to prevent further biodiversity loss and reduce GHG emissions.
What is restoration?
Restoration activities aim to repair, recover, or accelerate the recovery of an ecosystem that was degraded or disturbed due to human activities or natural disasters. Sites eligible for restoration have impaired physical, chemical, or biological functions and require intervention to return to a healthy state.
Severely degraded mangrove ecosystems do not store as much carbon as intact mangrove sites and may even act as carbon sources, emitting more GHGs than they store. Restoration repairs ecosystem function, allowing the site to sequester and store more carbon.
Some carbon standards ask projects to distinguish between restoration done through planting and restoration that does not involve planting.
Planting projects generally go by the following names:
- Afforestation: planting forest where it did not previously exist
- Reforestation: planting forest where it previously existed
- Revegetation: planting vegetation where there is none
Restoration activities that repair an ecosystem without planting new vegetation include:
- Adding fencing
- Removing buildings or roads
- Improving hydrological flow or function by clearing water channels or digging new channels
- Removing pollution sources
- Removing an invasive species
Figure 2. Restoration Using Afforestation, Reforestation, or Revegetation
Restoration with afforestation, reforestation or revegetation
Restoration and the Verra Verified Carbon Standard
The Verra VCS uses the following two types of restoration activities:
- Afforestation, Reforestation and Revegetation (ARR): activities which increase or alter vegetation
- Restoring Wetland Ecosystems (RWE): activities which repair degraded tidal wetlands
Mangrove restoration projects that plant trees in degraded wetlands can combine ARR and RWE activities into one project.
Figure 3. Restoration Not Using Afforestation, Reforestation or Revegetation
Restoration without afforestation, reforestation or revegetation
International Restoration Efforts
Various international targets for ecosystem restoration include the Bonn Challenge and the Kunming-Montréal Global Biodiversity Framework under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The United Nations declared 2021 – 2030 the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which aims to “prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean.” Some goals for 2050 include increasing ecosystem connectivity, increasing capacity building, and increasing financing for conservation.
The Importance of Conservation and Restoration of Blue Carbon Ecosystems
Both conservation and restoration are necessary to protect coastal communities and safeguard the world’s biodiversity and natural resources. The current global extinction rate is tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past ten million years.
Coastal conservation and restoration are also recognised for their role in climate mitigation and adaptation, and many countries include coastal protection and restoration in their Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement.
Unfortunately, degrading or destroying ecosystems for development, agriculture, or forestry purposes can make economic sense and be a profitable choice for communities in the short-term. However, in the long-term, healthy ecosystems could provide more value to local communities by supporting local livelihoods and irreplaceable biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Ultimately, humans rely on healthy ecosystems for our economies, health, well-being, and protection. According to the World Economic Forum, more than half of the world’s GDP directly relies on nature, though the true value of ecosystem services is rarely considered in economic and policy decisions.
It isn't easy to put a price tag on nature, though accounting for the estimated cost of carbon emissions is one way to measure the value of healthy ecosystems. A blue carbon project earns funding based on the perceived value of its emissions reductions or removals, making conservation or restoration more attractive for communities. Ultimately, carbon projects are tools to scale and finance ecosystem conservation and protection. They enable such activities in places where they would not happen otherwise.
Which type of carbon project is “better”? Conservation or Restoration?
Differences in Site Use and Stakeholder Engagement
Conservation activities occur in intact, healthy ecosystems, which often are richer in biodiversity and can provide more resources for human use (such as fuel, building materials, food, or medicine) than degraded sites. As a result, once the site is protected, local people who use a conservation project site for their livelihoods or subsistence require viable alternatives to those resources.
Conservation projects must thoroughly engage with and plan for those alternatives with communities. Community engagement using Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) is critical to reducing risk in conservation project design and will lead to improved conservation outcomes. For more information on Stakeholder Engagement and FPIC, register for our mangrove carbon project modules.
Technical and Financial Considerations
Conservation projects may be less technically complicated and expensive than restoration activities, as they require fewer workers, less equipment, and potentially less time for planning and implementation.
While some restoration projects only require limited interventions, such as removing a barrier to hydrology, most are complex and costly. One project may require intricate vegetation plantings, and another may need heavy machinery to move large objects or soils. Well-designed, successful restoration needs the collaboration of many technicians, scientists, and developers, as well as significant supplies, mapping and engineering, which are costly and time-consuming. One study estimated the median cost of coastal restoration at US$80,000 per hectare.
In addition, some coastal restoration interventions, such as large-scale mangrove plantings, are notoriously failure-prone. Working in blue carbon ecosystems is more challenging than in terrestrial ecosystems due to the influences of complex hydrological systems, the changing of tides and the sensitivity of mangrove plants to different water and soil conditions.
Earning Credits and Financing the Project
A 2020 study showed that a credit price of $3 to $13/ton of CO2e could be adequate to conserve most of the world’s remaining mangroves, while a price of $4.50 to $18/ton of CO2e could support the restoration of most of the world’s deforested mangroves. This discrepancy indicates the real difference in cost between conservation and restoration projects.
However, this does not mean restoration is not worth pursuing for project proponents. Projects incorporating restoration may obtain a higher price per credit than conservation alone.
Comparison: Conservation vs Restoration Projects in Mangroves
Site use and access
More likely to restrict stakeholder access to resources or livelihoods; must develop suitable alternatives.
Less likely that local stakeholders use a degraded site.
Often must work closely with stakeholders to address the root drivers of threats to the site and prevent degradation from occurring during and after the project.
May need to work with local stakeholders to ensure restoration is successful and site encroachment/ degradation does not occur after the project.
Technical – implementation
Generally, less challenging to implement, requiring fewer supplies, less expertise, and fewer staff.
More technically challenging; each site has unique restoration needs, requiring many staff, engineers, specialists, planners, monitoring, and supplies such as heavy machinery, seeds and seedlings, planting tools, and nurseries.
Generally, less expensive to implement; one consideration is the cost of potential alternative resources and livelihoods.
It can be extremely expensive, depending on the location and site condition.
Timeline to Credit Issuance
Conservation projects are more quickly, and sometimes more easily, implemented. Projects may therefore earn credits faster.
Restoration projects can be complex and time-consuming to implement. Most restoration projects will take longer than conservation projects to earn carbon credits.
Francis, E., Wilkman, A. "Conservation vs Restoration Activities for Blue Carbon Projects." Geneva, Switzerland: Fair Carbon, 2023. https://faircarbon.org/content/fc/restorationvconservation