Center for American Progress

Coastal Ecosystem Protection: A Strategic Opportunity for the United States and India

Coastal Ecosystem Protection: A Strategic Opportunity for the United States and India

Coastal wetlands and mangrove forests help fight climate change, but strong leadership and bilateral collaboration are urgently needed to avoid losing them forever.

Residents of the coastal Indian village of Podampeta in Odisha state survey the damage caused by Cyclone Phailin after it made landfall from the Bay of Bengal, October 12, 2013. (AP)
Residents of the coastal Indian village of Podampeta in Odisha state survey the damage caused by Cyclone Phailin after it made landfall from the Bay of Bengal, October 12, 2013. (AP)

On the occasion of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first meeting with President Barack Obama on September 30, 2014, the two leaders issued a joint statement that identified the core strategic interests shared by their nations. Because the people and economies of each country have an enormous stake in maintaining climate stability, their common need to address the causes of climate change and build resilience to its destructive impacts was prominently featured in the statement:

“Recognizing the critical importance of increasing energy access, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving resilience in the face of climate change, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi agreed to a new and enhanced strategic partnership on energy security, clean energy, and climate change.”— U.S.-India Joint Statement

As the United States and India work toward implementing the new agreement, officials from both countries should prioritize the conservation and restoration of coastal ecosystems, which represent an opportunity for bilateral collaboration and for significant, affordable gains in addressing climate change.

How coastal ecosystems fight climate change

Coastal ecosystems—including mangrove forests, salt marshes, and seagrass beds—capture and sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide more effectively than any other ecosystem on the planet. Because these habitats continuously transfer CO2 from the air into the soil, they lock away greenhouse gases for hundreds and even thousands of years and at rates more than 10 times those of tropical or temperate forests. Protecting and restoring coastal ecosystems not only preserves an asset in the fight against climate change but also prevents coastal development and other ecological disturbances that are turning these carbon sinks into major carbon sources that further accelerate global warming.

Coastal ecosystems also directly increase the resilience of shorelines. They blunt the impact of coastal storms; absorb and hold storm surge, reducing flooding; and weaken the erosive force of waves. Scientific studies on specific regions and ecosystem types have begun to quantify these benefits. For example, coastal mangrove forests have been found to reduce storm-surge levels by as much as 50 centimeters per kilometer of forest width, as well as reduce the force of typhoon-intensity winds by more than 50 percent. A survey that examined the storm track and property damage caused by the 34 major hurricanes that have made landfall along the U.S. Gulf Coast since 1980 found that the existence of wetlands in a hurricane’s path accounted for 60 percent of the variation in damage to nearby property, corresponding with significant reductions in losses. According to climate scientists, global warming is raising the average intensity of the hurricanes and cyclones that strike U.S. and Indian coasts each year. Understanding and maximizing the storm-protection benefits provided by coastal ecosystems is clearly in the national interest of both countries.

Losing a strategic asset

While scientists continue to advance humanity’s understanding of the remarkable benefits provided by coastal ecosystems, negative trends in both the United States and India indicate that coastal wetland conservation must be pursued much more aggressively in order to preserve this natural infrastructure. From 2004 to 2009, the United States lost more than 80,000 acres of coastal wetlands annually, largely due to coastal erosion and development along the Gulf of Mexico. Even more troubling, the rate of loss represents a 25 percent increase from the prior six-year period. Cumulatively, the United States lost an area of productive, beneficial coastal habitat larger than the state of Rhode Island between 1998 and 2009.

While accurate nation-level estimates of trends in Indian coastal wetland coverage are scarce, dramatic declines in inland wetlands have been reported, as have losses of the nation’s resplendent, biodiversity-rich mangrove forests. Furthermore, coastal lands nationwide face mounting stresses as India continues to see population growth that is driving it toward being the world’s most populous nation by 2028.

In other words, just as scientists are fully recognizing coastal ecosystems as assets of national significance in the fight against climate change, the United States and India are losing these systems to large-scale forces that are overwhelming existing conservation efforts.

Opportunities for action

Fortunately, new initiatives are demonstrating that coastal ecosystem conservation and restoration projects can be affordable, practical, and economically rewarding. For example, researchers in the San Francisco Bay Area recently devised a flood-protection plan based in part on salt-marsh restoration. They estimate that the project—if implemented along all 275 miles of the bay’s shoreline—will provide resilience benefits equivalent to those provided by traditional artificial levees, while costing more than $1 billion dollars less.

Important new initiatives are emerging at the international level as well. The U.S. Agency for International Development currently supports a multicountry effort known as SWAMP, or the Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program. SWAMP provides a forum in which experts from the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon State University, and the Indonesia-headquartered Center for International Forestry Research collaborate to help build the capacity of tropical countries to rigorously measure and monitor the vitality and carbon storage of their shoreline ecosystems. Mangrove-rich countries—such as India—that develop the institutional capacity for improved forest management could soon be rewarded with verified carbon credits for preventing mangrove deforestation and degradation, which they could then sell in global carbon markets to generate revenue.

The U.S. and Indian governments can immediately act on the new agreement between their leaders by expanding their support for and participation in initiatives such as these, as well as through facilitating the exchange of expertise and collaboration between agency counterparts in coastal lands governance. The two governments should also devise ambitious new goals for coastal ecosystem restoration that can be jointly pursued. For example, advanced engineering research is still needed to understand the resilience benefits of various coastal ecosystem types with the same precision with which planners understand the benefits and limits of artificial flood-protection measures such as seawalls and bulkheads. These data would make coastal ecosystems a much more plausible option for coastal flood-protection planners in both countries, as well as help leverage public investment in infrastructure for ecosystem restoration. Other knowledge gaps that could benefit from U.S.-India collaboration include improving the performance of artificially restored wetlands and reefs, integrating ecosystem restoration into urbanized coastal areas and traditional coastal infrastructure, and developing policies to incentivize private investments in conserving and restoring coastal ecosystems.

New leadership to seize the moment

Thirty-nine percent of the U.S. population—or 123 million Americans—live in counties along the nation’s 95,471 miles of coastline. In India, nearly 250 million people—or about 24 percent of the population—live within 50 kilometers of its 8,000 kilometers of coastal waterfront. As global warming continues to raise sea levels and intensify coastal storms, these populations increasingly live on the front lines of climate change. Consequently, the need for increased coastal resilience has never been higher for either country. The time is ripe for the United States and India to jointly tackle core problems and research needs in coastal land use so that coastal ecosystems can be harnessed to promote resilience and to slow the rate of global warming.

The United States and India are unquestioned global leaders in scientific research and engineering. For example, they comprise two of the world’s four space-exploration programs that have successfully sent spacecraft to orbit Mars. If the leaders of these two great countries lend their weight to better protect, restore, and harness coastal ecosystems in the fight against climate change, the results would be similarly stellar.

As part of their joint statement, Prime Minister Modi and President Obama also launched two new initiatives—the U.S.-India Partnership for Climate Resilience and the U.S.-India Climate Fellowship Program—to foster cooperation on climate change adaptation and investments in greenhouse gas emissions reductions. The leaders of government, civil society, and academia that populate these forums would serve their countries and the bilateral partnership well by remembering that nature already provides some of the best, most affordable solutions to climate change. However, it will require their institutional commitment and willingness to take action now if we are to reap the benefits.

Shiva Polefka is a Policy Analyst for the Ocean Policy program at the Center for American Progress. Pete Ogden, Director of International Climate Policy at the Center, and Arpita Bhattacharyya, a former Policy Analyst at the Center, both contributed to this column.

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Shiva Polefka

Associate Director, Ocean Policy