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Venice Lagoon’s Carbon Sink Eyed as Living Climate Lab

Jan. 30, 2020, 10:00 AM

Scientists, economists, and artisans in Venice have joined forces to quantify the economic value of protecting its lagoon as a carbon sink, hoping their data can drive policy decisions as climate change threatens the iconic Italian city.

The lagoon surrounding the island city draws in more than $1 million worth of carbon every year, according to figures released this week by the nonprofit We Are Here Venice, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Padova and the University of Cambridge.

The lagoon’s wetlands act as a natural carbon sink by storing carbon in plants and soil instead of releasing it to the atmosphere.

The study will allow those making future development decisions to take into account the economic costs of anything that reduces the lagoon’s carbon sequestration capacity, said Jane da Mosto, executive director of We Are Here Venice, which advocates for “evidence-based approaches to policy making.”

Human activities—such as pollution from cruise ships and diversion of the fresh water that flows into Venice and is needed for certain kinds of plants—have reduced the lagoon’s vegetation.

The organization is working with local businesses, including traditional Venetian glass blowers, to restore lost wetlands. The companies will be able to get credits to offset their carbon emissions. They hope to produce a carbon offsetting model that other coastal heritage sites can adopt to maximize local resiliency in the face of climate change.

“Venice is tired of being the victim of all the world’s problems,” da Mosto said. “It could instead be a laboratory for solutions.”

Partnership With Glassblowers

Local companies have helped fund the research and support projects to restore the wetlands, thereby offsetting their carbon emissions.

Laguna B, a company that sells iconic Murano glass products, is producing an environmental impact assessment report to determine the carbon emissions produced by burning propane to run the glass furnaces, transporting merchandise, and sourcing sand and chemicals for dyes.

“Our mission is not just to balance our—relatively small, I hope—emissions, but to sell this scheme and this carbon sequestration to top players in Venice,” including transportation companies and the hotel industry, Laguna B’s general manager Marcantonio Brandolini d’Adda said.

So far the Murano glass companies are “receptive and believe in what we do,” Brandolini said.

Protecting Venice

The wetlands also buffer Venice from flooding.

In November, the city was hit by its worst flooding in more than 50 years. Mayor Luigi Brugnaro blamed the frequency and intensity of the floods on climate change.

“All the problems in the Venice lagoon are linked,” Mariá José Viñals, a professor at the Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain, said. “The salt marshes are two sides of the same problem. They are among the most valuable and productive systems in the world, but also the most sensitive and vulnerable to climate change.”

Saving the lagoon is crucial to saving the city, da Mosto said.

Value of Carbon Uptake

Researchers found that the lagoon’s salt marsh and sea grass sequestered 24,780 tons of carbon per year, with a total economic value of 1.08 millions euros ($1.19 million), Laura Onofri, a professor from the University of Padova, said.

Those figures could nearly double by 2050 under sustainable management practices such as lagoon restoration and ecological preservation, she said.

“In Venice there has always been a conflict between management priorities,” Onofri said.

During the Renaissance, farmers wanted to increase the islands’ land mass, while traders wanted to increase the size of its waterways. Today, the tourism industry and maritime interests dominate the economic calculus, but the lagoon’s health should also be part of the equation, Onofri said

“Natural capital is like all other capital,” she said. “You need to provide a value to know how to manage it best.”

To contact the reporter on this story : Janna Brancolini in Milan at
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Renee Schoof at