072 | 100
Catherine Lovelock
Reviving coastal wetlands

42 min 59 sec

Professor Catherine Lovelock from the School of Biological Sciences at University of Queensland is an internationally regarded mangrove expert. Her current research focus is on ‘blue carbon’ and the potential for sequestration in coastal mangroves. Lovelock is a founding member of the International Blue Carbon Scientific Working Group and the International Partnership for Blue Carbon. She was Australia’s lead author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on greenhouse gas accounting guidelines for wetlands and its development of blue carbon accounting methodologies. Her research has been published in international journals including Nature. 

Yaara Bou Melhem is a Walkley award-winning journalist and documentary maker who has made films in the remotest corners of Australia and around the world. Her debut documentary feature, Unseen Skies, which interrogates the inner workings of mass surveillance, computer vision and artificial intelligence through the works of US artist Trevor Paglen was screened in competition at the 2021 Sydney Film Festival. She is currently directing a series for the ABC and is the inaugural journalist-in-residence at the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas working on journalistic experimental film.  

Catherine Lovelock is a coastal ecologist researching ‘blue carbon’ ― the carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by oceanic systems ― and its sequestration potential in coastal mangroves and seagrass ecosystems. Lovelock and her team collaborate with farming communities to restore habitats under threat from industrial and agricultural run-off.   

We can reforest the lost mangroves and salt marshes of the world. We should. We could. We can.

– Catherine Lovelock

Black and white image of Mangrove Flat, Hawkesbury River, NSW
'Mangrove Flat, Hawkesbury River, N.S.W.' by Henry King from the Tyrrell collection

The biggest impact globally on mangroves is people.

– Catherine Lovelock

The only way we’re going to get CO2 in the atmosphere down is to reduce emissions. These other things like blue carbon and green carbon, they are for the residual part that we might not be able to manage down… they are a part of the solution.

– Catherine Lovelock

Blue carbon is a sales pitch, but an effective one because the oceans have been out of scope. All of the climate change mitigation rules that governments report on are all about the land. They’re not about the ocean.

– Catherine Lovelock

Botanical illustration of 'Avicennia afficinalis'
Botanical illustration of 'Avicennia afficinalis (Mangrove)' by Agard Hagman

No countries report on what happens on their continental shelf. And they should. We want to do a whole-of-planet carbon accounting.

– Catherine Lovelock

My goal at the moment is to really do that science and draw the community together, including Traditional Owners, to make this method for feral animal control for a carbon abatement, so that we can deliver funding for good management to Traditional Owners.

– Catherine Lovelock

mangrove bark wound up
Ceriops candolleana (Mangrove bark) timber specimen from Fiji

We can reforest the lost mangroves and salt marshes of the world. We should. We could. We can.

– Catherine Lovelock

Yaara Bou Melhem

Welcome everyone to 100 Climate Conversations and thank you for joining us. Before we begin, and on behalf of the Powerhouse, I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the ancestral homelands upon which the museum is situated, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to their Elders, past and present. I would also like to welcome any First Nations people listening in or joining us today and pay my respects to their elders. Today is number 72 of 100 conversations happening every Friday. The series presents 100 visionary Australians that are taking positive action to respond to the most critical issue of our time, which is, of course, climate change. We are recording live today in the Boiler Hall of the Powerhouse Museum. Before it was home to the museum it was the Ultimo Power Station. Built in 1899, it supplied coal-powered electricity to Sydney’s tram system into the 1960s. In the context of this architectural artefact, we shift our focus forward to the innovations of the net zero revolution. My name is Yaara Bou Melhem. I’m a journalist and documentary film director, and I often make public interest films at the intersection of science and art. Sitting next to me is Catherine Lovelock. Professor Catherine Lovelock is from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Queensland, and she’s an internationally renowned mangrove expert. Her current research focuses on blue carbon and the potential for sequestration in coastal mangroves. Lovelock is a founding member of the International Blue Carbon Scientific Working Group and the International Partnership for Blue Carbon. She was Australia’s lead author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on Greenhouse Gas Accounting Guidelines for Wetlands and its development of blue carbon accounting methodologies. We are so thrilled to have her join us today. Please join me in welcoming Catherine. So, Catherine, an easy one, let’s go back to the very beginning. You grew up in Geraldton, a remote coastal town on the Western Australian coastline. Tell me how that influenced the direction you took with working with the environment and oceans.

Catherine Lovelock

I think when you grow up on the coast in Western Australia, you love the ocean, you just do. But it’s hard to imagine when you’re out there in regional settings what you can do about that, right? It’s a– I think regional Australia sometimes it’s hard for kids to have the imagination about what they might be able to do. And I found that really, I mean, I was really interested by the environment, generally. So, when I went to university, I actually started science and then I did agriculture. So, agriculture’s an interesting one, but it gives you such a broad background in so many different things and I actually ended up doing agriculture because I was interested in soils. Sounds like a strange thing to be interested in, but–

YBM

Oh, it’s really important right now.

CL

Yes, and soils are fundamental to plant growth. They determine the kinds of plant communities that you get, not only the productivity in an agricultural setting. So, that was really my brief. And then when I came– after I finished my undergraduate and I was thinking about postgraduate study, I started to work on coastal wetlands, so mangroves. And they’re this sort of like wonderful intersection of kind of land and lots of soils and trees and definitely ocean because you need the tides. So, it was this sort of strange mix and very appealing to me. I mean, sure, it’s muddy, bitey, it’s hard work. Some people can’t even imagine how I go in there. But luckily, I’m not allergic to sand flies or mosquito bites. So, I’m sort of like predisposed to work in, you know, muddy, mangrovey, saltmarshy habitats.

YBM

So, where has your work taken you?

CL

Geographically? Oh, all over the world. Like I’ve actually been quite diverse in my interests. You know, I actually did do a whole stint of work in rainforests. And after my PhD, I worked in Antarctica on Antarctic flora for a little while, and I still maintain an interest – that was climate change related. So, it’s sort of like, you know, as you grow as a scientist, you kind of collect interests and while when you’re young, your focus tends to be quite tight. As I’ve gotten older, my focus has expanded in scale, you know, temporally and spatially, I suppose. But quite early on I had an interest in climate change, the influence of climate change on plant communities, on the environment. And then really this whole blue carbon gig is sort of like switching that and it’s like, how can these communities also help us to adapt to climate change. So, mitigate climate change, as in soak up CO2 and also adapt to rising sea levels. So, they’re vulnerable, but they’re also part of the solution. And that makes it quite an interesting kind of scientific space to be in. I started work on mangroves in my PhD — they’re a huge component of tropical coastlines and they occur on coastlines that aren’t beaches, right? Because you need low energy conditions. And by that, I mean estuarine conditions usually, associated with rivers and big embayments. So, mangroves are one group, but I also work on salt marshes, which in Australia tend to occur higher on the landward edge of the mangroves. And then I’ve also done some work on seagrass because they’re also similar in that they’re actually, you know, proper plants with leaves and roots, but they occur in the oceans, they occur in the intertidal and subtidal signs of the coast.

YBM

And what is it about mangroves that drew you to that particular area? Because you’ve spoken before about how people can undervalue mangrove forests because they’re muddy and smelly and filled with mosquitoes. Tell us the importance of mangroves.

Black and white image of Mangrove Flat, Hawkesbury River, NSW
'Mangrove Flat, Hawkesbury River, N.S.W.' by Henry King from the Tyrrell collection
CL

Actually, they’re aesthetically really interesting. I’ll tell you that first. We’re in an art museum, we can talk about how beautiful and strange they are, and that means they’ve often been scary. So, you see, I think there’s some European children’s books that that you can see they’ve used the mangrove as the archetypal sort of dark forest. The colonists, when they came to Australia, found very inhospitable. Also, the colonists, the European colonists who arrived in America found the mangroves a very difficult habitat to work in. All right, so aesthetically, they’re very interesting, I think. They’re beautiful, strange, very strange. But what they do for us is, of course, they are fish nurseries, all of those — a lot of fish species that we like to eat, a lot of fish species that are on the coral reefs actually do some kind of part of their lifecycle in the mangrove or associated with the mangrove. They provide coastal protection. That became really, really apparent during the big tsunami that occurred in the Indian Ocean in the 90s. So, where you have a mangrove, you have basically a wall of friction, that soaks up energy, they’re really important for storm protection along our coast. If you’re a fisherman in Cairns, you know the safest place for your boat is up a mangrove when a big storm comes.

YBM

Is that right?

CL

Yes, for sure. People go take their boats you know, as far up the mangroves as they can put them sometimes just to get away from the wind because you’ve got this beautiful sort of wall that prevents the wind making attack.

YBM

And does it provide cyclone protection as well?

CL

Yes, for sure. From both the wind and the waves. So, they provide all of these wonderful, you know, what we call ecosystem services. In parts of the world, of course, they’re also important for timber. And gleaning, you know, like all of the oysters and crabs and other species that are associated are important.

YBM

And what effect is climate change having on these coastal ecosystems?

The biggest impact globally on mangroves is people.

– Catherine Lovelock

CL

So, climate change is having a range of impacts, I would say. So, the biggest impact globally on mangroves is people. You know, half the distributions have been, or half of the area of mangroves, have been removed largely for aquaculture and rice. So, you know, people say, how can that work for a salty environment? You just have to lock out the tide with a wall and then you can do things behind. And in Asia there’s excavation to make ponds and that huge aquaculture, of course, has driven economic development in many ways. The impacts of climate change are actually becoming more and more apparent. And I think in Australia that became evident with the large dieback of mangroves in the north of Australia, maybe somewhere between 7000 and 10,000 hectares died and that was to do not with– it’s a very sort of odd impact of climate change that’s not really well understood, right? So, it was an extreme drought and an extreme low sea level event that happened simultaneously, and a low sea level event will happen because of the El Niño-La Niña oscillation, which are becoming more intense and frequent. So, when El Niño comes to our coast, it gets very dry. But actually, the sea level also drops because all of the water has been out in the Pacific somewhere. And when we have La Niñas, extreme La Niñas, it comes back and the sea levels are very elevated and it rains like crazy, right? So, these swings are actually becoming closer together and more intense. And that’s one of the impacts of climate change of our changing global ocean atmospheric circulation. So, that’s one thing that we noted in Australia. Okay, but sea level rise is an issue as well and probably the place where you can see it the most is in the south of the US, where they’re losing like hectares of saltmarsh every year to the sea. And that’s because they’re very low in the intertidal, they’re really at mean sea level if not a little bit below. And the marshes can’t accumulate enough sediment and roots to keep up with sea level. And so, they’re getting into a place where they can’t withstand that level of inundation and the marsh falls apart and you go to open water. So, that sort of thing is becoming more evident in different parts of the world. So, one example is, say, the Mekong Delta, the Mekong River delivers sediments, which basically allows the mangroves to keep up with sea level rise — sea level rise, three mills a year, five mills a year, let’s say, in some places that are sinking — so, they need to get that much sediment and root growth to keep up. But what’s planned for the Mekong is a series of dams, which will–

YBM

This is in Laos and Vietnam?

CL

Vietnam and Laos. And so, all of the sediment will stop coming to the coast. That’s the prediction. And that will mean they’ll have retreat. You know, the mangroves won’t be able to keep up with sea level rise. They’ll get too low in the intertidal and die because they don’t like to be inundated all the time. And then the coastline will move back. You know, that’s the whole issue with coastal squeeze. If we don’t manage the landscape to let them move back, then we’re also going to lose the mangrove. And in some parts of the world that’s going to happen. In Australia, we’ve got a chance to do it better or do it more appropriately.

YBM

Yes. Allow us to have more robust mangrove systems.

CL

Yes, more robust coastal environments with climate change.

YBM

So, in one sense there are effects on mangrove forests with climate change, but in another sense they’re also part of the nature-based solution to climate change. How can mangrove forests help us mitigate the effects of, and adapt to, climate change?

The only way we’re going to get CO2 in the atmosphere down is to reduce emissions. These other things like blue carbon and green carbon, they are for the residual part that we might not be able to manage down… they are a part of the solution.

– Catherine Lovelock

CL

So, mangroves like all of these — mangroves, salt marshes, seagrasses — they have flooded soils, their soils are wet and that means they don’t have much air that penetrates into them. And when you don’t have much oxygen or air, you slow decomposition. So, what happens is over time, you have accumulation of all of this organic matter — dead roots, wood, leaves — and accumulates over time such that you can get metres and metres of this sort of black, organic, rich soils. So, that is a carbon stock and that is where we want the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to go because we need to remove it from the atmosphere and store it someplace. So, mangroves are just really good at doing that. They’re very, very good at fixing CO2 in photosynthesis, making it into biomass, wood, leaves, roots particularly, and then it all gets deposited in those wet sediments, and so it stays put. So, that is one of the solutions. Reforestation of essentially deforested landscapes is one of the ways we can work to mitigate climate change. It’s only one of the ways. I mean, you have to always preface this, the only way we’re going to get CO2 in the atmosphere down is to reduce emissions. These other things like blue carbon and green carbon, they are for the residual part that we might not be able to manage down. So anyway, they are a part of the solution because they can do that, and we can reforest the lost mangroves and salt marshes of the world. We should. We could. We can.

YBM

How do you do that? How do you restore a mangrove ecosystem?

CL

You have to make the conditions right for a mangrove to grow. That means you have to reintroduce the tide and you have to make the level of the soil right, so that they only get inundated by the tides some of the time. So, if you dig a hole in a mangrove, that hole might stay as water because it’s basically too low and they’re going to be too flooded. So, it’s about making the environment really suitable for them. And then usually they’re great colonists. My goodness. They just, you know, they come if there’s a mangrove around and it’s producing propagules so, seeds kind of, and then they enter the environment they’re really good at being early colonists of landscapes. So, we just have to really work at returning the environment to something that’s suitable.

YBM

Give us some examples of large-scale replantings around the world that have worked and that haven’t worked and why that was the case.

CL

Reforesting or restoring the mangrove habitats of the world is something that’s really on the international agenda for climate change mitigation. That’s partly because mangroves are also really important for communities — they need them to live, they need fish, they need wood, they need food. So, restoring the mangroves is a really good idea and they provide coastal protection against storms. So, some of the most successful projects that I know about, that I’ve got colleagues that work on, some of them are in Indonesia, so, they’re usually community based. So, that means there’s a great involvement of the community in restoring their own mangrove. And our research globally would say that having communities decide to and run their restoration projects is the best way to go.

YBM

Because they’re invested in it?

CL

They’re invested in it, they defend it. You know, the coastal and oceanic ecosystems suffer from the tragedy of the commons, which means everybody can have a go and nobody’s really responsible. And mangroves are no different. Often, they’re government managed, which means everybody has access, and that means there’s a lot of room for overexploitation. So, if a community owns and manages their resource, they can manage that access a lot better and they can basically work towards a sustainable exploitation if that’s what they need to do. So, the evidence is that that really helps with conservation. They are the most successful projects. So, there’s a big one in Colombia called Cispatá. It’s actually supported by Conservation International through funding from Apple Corporation. Can you believe this? But it’s managed by Colombians. And then in Indonesia, also, there’s been some great grassroots reforestation of mangrove habitats — that [had] been damaged for aquaculture, largely; building failed aquaculture ponds. And the unsuccessful ones are where you have mass plantings in inappropriate environments, largely because it has to happen rapidly. And negotiating with communities is not a rapid process. So, the person who has the money to do that reforestation basically does it rapidly and without consultation in land that doesn’t require consultation.

YBM

Let’s look at blue carbon. Take us through what you mean or talk us, walk us through what you mean when you talk about blue carbon.

Blue carbon is a sales pitch, but an effective one because the oceans have been out of scope. All of the climate change mitigation rules that governments report on are all about the land. They’re not about the ocean.

– Catherine Lovelock

CL

So, blue carbon was a term that was coined in about 2009, and it was really meant to draw attention to the role of the oceans and marine ecosystems in storing carbon. They put mangroves and salt marshes and seagrasses in that bucket in storing carbon from the atmosphere, and the need for them to be healthy to do so. And it was to draw attention to that. It’s a more sexy term than saying, ‘Hey, like mud is great, right? Or something like that, right? Blue carbon is a sales pitch, but an effective one because the oceans have been out of scope. You know, all of the climate change mitigation rules that governments report on are all about the land. They’re not about the ocean. No country reports on what it’s been doing to its oceans for climate change mitigation. And so, bringing that to the fore, you know, really helped, like the IPCC develop guidelines for at least mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass. So, now countries can report on the good work that they do for climate change mitigation in those ecosystems. So, it was really, blue carbon was really about drawing attention to the issue. The fact that the oceans were being mismanaged in many cases or marine ecosystems were being mismanaged, and they should be– and if they were better managed, we would have more of a carbon sink and a sustained carbon sink.

YBM

How do you measure the value, monetary value of a system?

CL

Well, you know, markets are developed for that. You know, market-based environmental actions. It fills a gap where regulation doesn’t seem to be an option at the moment. Monetarising carbon is a way or, believed to be a way, to incentivise action. So, there’s a market for carbon — you can sell a tonne of carbon on the voluntary market out there in the world for anywhere between $5 and $50. Depending on how confident you are that it is a tonne of carbon that’s been removed, and you know whether it’s got some other shiny things associated with it, like biodiversity or it’s a blue carbon credit. I mean, I’ve got colleagues that do projects in Madagascar, and they issue carbon credits for their projects, and they have a big, long line of people who want to buy their carbon credits. And they don’t have enough to sell to everybody. And it’s because they’re doing fantastic work with Madagascar coastal communities to do sustainable mangrove management and sustainable fisheries. So, they’re very, very shiny. They are good–

YBM

It’s attractive for businesses.

CL

Yes, but it’s attractive for everybody. I don’t mean to sound sort of dismissive at all of that. You know, if we’re going to do this, we might as well do it really well. We don’t want to be issuing junk carbon credits from a pine plantation or a plantation of introduced tree species. You know, if we’re going to do it, we might as well do it right and do really good social and environmental projects.

YBM

Just piggybacking off that, what are the differences in the potential for sequestration in blue carbon compared to terrestrial ecosystems, like forests?

CL

Some forests offer really high rates, they grow fast — it’s in the wood. But the difference is, is that for coastal systems, for mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes, really the benefit’s in the soils and the wood for mangroves. But because the soils are wet, they’re storing carbon and that doesn’t happen in terrestrial ecosystems. So, you have this sink, the soils, that will continue to grow. Because the sediments and roots and organic matter continue to accumulate for hundreds and thousands of years. So, it’s a never-ending sink, if you like. It just gets bigger. And for terrestrial forests, the forest gets to a certain size then the forest is basically neutral. And for mangroves, it continues to grow. So, that’s one of their big benefits and big points of differentiation is really what’s happening below ground.

YBM

You actually led the development of a method that estimates the climate mitigation benefits of restoring coastal wetlands. What did that entail and what were your key findings?

Botanical illustration of 'Avicennia afficinalis'
Botanical illustration of 'Avicennia afficinalis (Mangrove)' by Agard Hagman
CL

I think that entailed blood, sweat and tears.

YBM

Always does.

CL

It was a really interesting process, I must say. There was a big group of us all around Australia, different ecosystems. It’s a very important process when you do this sort of thing, to have the community, whether it’s the scientific community bought in. We were all seeing that this was a good thing to do. So, it took– and actually the work started maybe a decade ago. Summarising all of the information about carbon sequestration in soils and biomass of all of these ecosystems across Australia. We’re a whole continent. We go from cool, temperate, all the way through to hot, arid. Summarising a lot of data. And then we had to come to consensus on the estimations that were appropriate. So, the thing about scientists is we always want more data because we’re not content that we’ve described the system properly. So, we always want more and there’s never enough. And for this process, if you’re going to make a method that estimates how much carbon these systems accumulate, you are basically going to have to say, ‘This is good enough’. You know, we’ve got enough data to say that we’re reasonably confident that this will be the number.

YBM

How do you get that data?

CL

Oh, gosh, this is collecting cores, dating cores, doing hours and hours of fieldwork. This takes the community to actually assemble this kind of information. Greenhouse gases. Oh, my Lord. We summarise a lot of work altogether. So, a great process, right? Really brought us all together. And now we’re poised to do more work. Right now, there’s a proposal for a seagrass method that’s coming out — the South Australian Government are leading that, but we’re all kind of educated in this process about how to work with government to do this, how to work with industry to get this done. So, we sort of all got really trained up, knowledgeable about policy and how governments work and how the whole process might work and how carbon markets might work. Can you imagine a bunch of scientists who deal in mud kind of like all getting their heads around this other kind of whole world?

YBM

And you’re not just doing that fieldwork and coming up with these sorts of methods. You’ve also worked extensively with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, which you mentioned earlier. How is blue carbon talked about within the IPCC? And was it ever on the agenda before?

CL

No, actually, there was always a wetland – something about wetlands in the IPCC guidance in 2006 — but they, for some reason had just emitted– the mangroves and salt marshes and seagrass just weren’t in scope. You know, it was all about land and land use change. So, it actually took Emily Pidgeon, who’s from Conservation International and Dorothée Herr from IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and others, Steve Crooks, they got together and they really– and a bunch of scientists they assembled — they’re from the sort of non-government organisation community — and they assembled the scientists to provide the evidence to say, ‘Hey, really there should be something on coastal wetlands in the guidance’. And the countries agreed and directed the IPCC to make that guidance. That guidance was made in 2013. So, it took a while and then after that the UNFCCC, the United Nations Framework [Convention on] Climate Change instructs the countries to report on their mangroves and salt marshes and seagrass changes in those. All right, so that was great. I was a part of that process, but in 2019, they redid the guidelines, and we were able to introduce even more things for countries to focus on. Mainly around methane.

YBM

And what further research is needed?

CL

I think there’s still a long way to go, both in the research and the policy space. I think that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should provide guidance for the oceans. I think enough of this land-based stuff, let’s go whole of planet. Let’s do the oceans. The oceans were just always seen. You know, we’ve watched Attenborough, they are wonderful, big, wild places that are really hard to get into. You know, basically, there’s been more people to the moon than there is to the bottom of the oceans. So, it’s–

YBM

It’s out of sight, out of mind. Yes, but it also makes up 70% of the planet.

No countries report on what happens on their continental shelf. And they should. We want to do a whole-of-planet carbon accounting.

– Catherine Lovelock

CL

And we don’t put it in our greenhouse gas accounting. No countries report on what happens on their continental shelf. And they should. We want to do a whole-of-planet carbon accounting. So, countries have to report on what happens to their seabed. What happens to the populations of organisms that pass through those things? I mean, some of this is covered off in the CBD, in the Convention on Biological Diversity, and some of this is also about the law of the sea. You know, we talked about the difficulty of talking to communities about restoring their mangroves, and now we’re talking about all of the 200 nations or whatever it is coming to agreement on how to account for CO2 in the oceans. Oh, my Lord.

YBM

And do you think that this market-based mechanism can actually shift the dial on coastal restoration and conservation? Is this the best we’ve got at the moment?

CL

I think it’s part of the solution, right? And it’s the best thing I can think of at the moment. Beyond better regulation and enforcement of regulation. So, regulation is always on the table. I also think if you’re going to regulate, but you have no way of enforcing that, then you’re better to do something else. And so, I am a big proponent for community-based forestry for restoration in countries like Myanmar and Kenya and Madagascar or similar. So, by community-based forestry, I mean, like our management by local people for their own use. And that means wresting the control a lot of the time from the government or having the government make these schemes such that communities can manage their own forests.

YBM

And you have advised governments on restoration and on preservation. What is the role in policy in all of this?

CL

Well, policy gives signals. Very strong signals often that drive an agenda. So, we have in Queensland the Land Restoration Fund, which is a piece of the State Government policy and it says, if you do a carbon project we will pay you more for the credit or basically will add value to your credit if you do a good job for biodiversity or other things that the state is interested in trying to enhance. So, that’s a really strong signal that the state is interested in conservation of biodiversity and also in doing land-based carbon projects to increase forest cover, increase cover of mangroves or whatever. So, I think those things are really good signals. I mean, South Australia has a blue carbon strategy — they’ve made a strong indication that they’re interested in conservation and restoration of coastal ecosystems. And I think these things are really important. They set the stage, they enable industry to look at it and say, okay, well, we could participate in some way. So, I think it’s a strong signal. But we still have a long way to go.

YBM

I think we’ve talked a lot about the need to restore some of these degraded forests and conserve what’s left, but we haven’t actually talked about whether destruction of mangrove forests are speeding up or slowing down where figures are, where Australia sits in all of this as well, how Australia is faring.

CL

So Australia has, you know, we don’t– like in comparison to countries like Myanmar or Vietnam our mangrove cover is largely intact because we haven’t gone full scale into coastal aquaculture, unregulated coastal aquaculture. We do have some. So, our mangroves are actually in pretty good shape. Our salt marshes, in contrast, they’re endangered in southern– because they’ve been so converted. So, if you think about all of our airports, for example, they usually sit on a salt marsh or what was a salt marsh. So, you know, definitely that’s the case in Brisbane, they’re sitting on coastal wetlands and Sydney, too. Industrial estates are often on top of low-lying land that was the salt marsh. I think, in Australia we really need to pay attention to that, otherwise, we’ll lose that habitat and all the species associated with it. We’ve also, in Queensland and other places, cleared and drained our connected brackish freshwater wetlands or melaleuca forests. Throughout Queensland some species are endangered. It’s been converted for cane, for agricultural production, so drained landscapes — that was all of the wetlands. And I think we’ve got a target. We’ve got to target to try and restore a lot of that.

YBM

And your work is quite varied at the moment and you’re doing some really interesting work with First Nations knowledge holders in Australia. Can you tell us a bit about that and how coming from a Western science perspective you’re kind of marrying that with this First Nations knowledge? How you work in that?

CL

Yes, this is a new space for me, and I don’t profess to be an expert at all, I’m learning. One thing about the blue carbon method, it’s for reintroducing the tides, where the tides have been removed. And that is often in land that’s been made agricultural, so agricultural landscapes. The Aboriginal people of Australia are landholders over huge amounts of wetlands, particularly northern Australia, where that is not their big issue. You know, I’m interested in equity here and through the blue carbon method I sort of realised there’s not really that much on offer here for Aboriginal people, for managing the coastal zone and yet they manage huge swathes of it across Australia. But what really does interest those people is the impact of feral animals on their wetlands. You know, wetlands are really important — they’re for food, they have a lot of cultural importance. And so, talking to Traditional Owners, we realised that the feral animals are the things that they really want to control. We’re actually at the moment pursuing the idea of a carbon method for removing feral animals out of wetlands because what they do contributes to CO2 emissions as they disturb the soils and vegetation, and they also lead to methane emissions and nitrous oxide emissions. So, my goal at the moment is to really do that science and draw the community together, including Traditional Owners, to make this method for feral animal control, for carbon abatement, so that we can deliver funding for good management to Traditional Owners. You know, I’ve just spent ten days in Kakadu sort of trying to start those measurements and start those discussions. So, I’m working with a group called the Indigenous Carbon Industry Network, and they’re a network of Aboriginal groups that do largely savanna burning carbon projects. So, they do early season burns to prevent catastrophic fire and they earn a carbon credit from doing that and it’s been a game changer for many of those communities.

My goal at the moment is to really do that science and draw the community together, including Traditional Owners, to make this method for feral animal control for a carbon abatement, so that we can deliver funding for good management to Traditional Owners.

– Catherine Lovelock

YBM

Absolutely.

CL

It introduces funding. It means that people get training, it gets people back out on country and some groups like the Aboriginal Carbon Foundation — and I think Rowan Foley was one of the 100 conversations — they have the vision of having Aboriginal people audit each other’s projects. So, then we need accountants, and we need– so as a means to bring capacity through that community. So, I’m trying to like piggyback on the work of people like Anna Boustead at the Indigenous Carbon Industry Network and Rowan and others and join in that process trying to deliver something that enables good management of our wetlands across Northern Australia.

YBM

And figure out how to remove feral animals in a way that can actually be sustainable for the community.

CL

Exactly, because carbon projects fund over 25 years, it’s not– and right now the feral animal control, you know, for pigs and buffalo and stuff is like, oh, it’s a cull here and three years of funding there and all it seems to do is knock the populations down enough that they spring back.

YBM

It’s like a game of whack-a-mole.

CL

So, this is a way to try and make that perhaps more sustainable. I mean, people are interested. We got the traditional owners are interested enough to come with us to the field and let us work on their Country. So, I’m hoping that we can draw something together that’s going to have a good outcome.

YBM

Well, that brings me to my next question, because, I mean, it seems like you’re really hopeful about this project and there must be so many challenges dedicating a career to conservation. There’s a lot of loss and constant challenges and, you know, compounded by the pressures of a changing climate. What are your hopes for how we relate to, and care for, our environment into the future?

CL

It is hard to generate optimism because I teach the university I talk to a lot of young people and I have children myself who are in their 20s and there is a lot of anxiety and there’s a lot of worry and a lot of actual hopelessness actually, amongst them. I see. But you have to stay optimistic. You know, it’s just a stance and you have to do what you can. And so, I’m doing what I can in my, you know, given my set of skills and history through my career, this is a logical place to find myself, really. I suppose my focus is really on coastal wetlands. My goal is to lead to global improvement in their condition. And I can see that there’s glimmers of hope. I know that the timelines are short, but we really have to just keep going for it. And we know it’s getting warmer. When we were at Kakadu, there in June, and one of the people with us said, ‘Did you know that that was the hottest day in June record that’s ever been recorded?’ And it’s like when people go to Kakadu and they’re tourists and you look out over at Ubirr rock and you’re looking at over the floodplain, it looks so gorgeous. And we’re in amongst the pig damage and the buffalo wallows in the weeds and the– But I was talking to my daughter about this, and I said, ‘But no, it’s okay. The park is still beautiful. There’s still time and there’s still wonderful things to focus on’.

mangrove bark wound up
Ceriops candolleana (Mangrove bark) timber specimen from Fiji
YBM

And wonderful people who are working on projects there.

CL

Hats off to the managers that continue on and the Traditional Owners who refuse to back away. Like there’s a whole community of people who are working hard. And like, this is 100 conversations, right? But there are thousands of people across Australia, thousands, we would hope, even more than thousands that are working to maintain the environment in some kind of like sustainable shape into the future.

YBM

I think that’s a really lovely note to end this on. Could everyone please join me in thanking Catherine for joining us today? To follow the program online you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And visit the 100 Climate Conversations exhibition or join us for a live recording, go to 100climateconversations.com.

This is a significant new project for the museum and the records of these conversations will form a new climate change archive preserved for future generations in the Powerhouse collection of over 500,000 objects that tell the stories of our time. It is particularly important to First Nations peoples to preserve conversations like this, building on the oral histories and traditions of passing down our knowledges, sciences and innovations which we know allowed our Countries to thrive for tens of thousands of years.

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