Why whales could be the key to storing our carbon emissions

Two academics from the University of Cambridge argue that whales and other marine life are a solution to the climate crisis.

Although global governments have committed to limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C, their behavior is not indicative of seriousness. Emissions continue to rise every year. The most recent climate analysis report by the IPCC, published on 4 April, warns that this pattern is set to continue – with a projected global rise of 3.2C or more by 2100 – if emissions aren’t drastically reduced and excess CO2 removed from the atmosphere.

It’s time to turn to our oceans for help, an approach consistent with the IPCC’s climate objectives, yet which remains relatively overlooked. Current research at the Centre for Climate Repair (CCRC) at Cambridge University tackles how we can reinvigorate the world’s largest potential carbon sinks, which cover more than 70 per cent of our planet’s surface, and have already been working to remove CO2 from our atmosphere for millions of years.

The world is currently struggling with its current situation, which is just 1.3C above preindustrial levels. The planet is currently being ravaged by unprecedented droughts, wildfires, floods and storms. SwissRe, one of the world’s largest insurance companies, estimated that natural disasters cost the world US$190bn (£146bn) in 2020.

Each temperature increase brings more unpredictable conditions. Rising sea levels could make coastal cities like Jakarta and Kolkata unlivable by 2050 due to storm surges and floods.

The IPCC report outlines that reducing the use of fossil fuels is essential to reducing emissions. Technical innovations to help us make this transition – alongside wind, solar and tidal power – include using methane from landfill sites to heat buildings (something already successfully implemented in Sweden) and building clean mass transportation systems that free up pavements and public spaces (as demonstrated in Bogota). Wealthy nations must step up to make these changes, at the same time funding poorer nations’ plans to sidestep fossil fuel reliance.

This is a necessary plan of actions, but politics and policy continue to respond slowly. Governments are failing to coordinate their efforts with the needed scale and urgency.

Carbon emissions

The first step is to stop releasing carbon. Image: Davidson Luna

Capturing carbon 

A key component of reducing CO2 emissions is to put atmospheric carbon back where it came. Carbon capture and storage technology is vital in areas where CO2 emissions are virtually unavoidable. This includes heavy industrial processes such as steel works. It is however costly and requires high energy consumption, making it an inefficient solution.

It is more promising to use nature to store carbon on large scales. The IPCC report lays the foundation for the farming industry to make dramatic changes to sequester more carbon in the soil over the next ten years. Yet although methods of doing this have been successfully trialled across the world, policy hasn’t caught up, and vested interests in current farming methods also create inertia.

A large amount of tree planting can also increase carbon sinks. But using land alone won’t be enough to sufficiently reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. This is where oceans step in.

Storing carbon from the sea

Much of the deep ocean that’s now desertified thanks to human activity was once a thriving aquatic ecosystem. Our current research explores how whales form an important part of rebuilding that system, acting as ‘biological pumps’ that circulate nutrients from the depths of the ocean to its surface through their feeding and excreting behaviours.

Carbon emissions

Reviving ocean ecosystems can increase biodiversity, create jobs, and store carbon. Cedric Frixon

What’s more, CCRC experiments are exploring the potential for regenerating ocean biomass as a way to store more carbon. Ocean biomass is a collection of plants, fish, and animals that thrive near the sea surface, but then send their shells, bones, and decomposing vegetation to the deep ocean. This locks huge amounts of carbon in the seabed. Expanding their numbers could bolster biodiversity, shore up fish stocks and provide income opportunities for marginalised communities across the world – as well as capturing tens of billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.

A third aspect of tackling the climate crisis involves fixing parts of the climate system that have already passed their “tipping point”: starting by refreezing the Arctic. Rapid Arctic melting has already caused many of the extreme weather events we’ve seen recently, from snow in Texas to floods in China, thanks to its distorting effects on the polar jet stream. Reversing this process – for example by artificially increasing cloud cover over the region to reflect more sunlight away from Arctic ice – would allow the jet stream to return to normal, buying us more time to work on reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas levels.

The technical challenges of reducing carbon emissions by switching to fossil fuels are more political than technical. The benefits of cleaner air and better health, as well as new jobs for millions of people in the alternative energy industry, should outweigh any short-term concerns. If we want to make the future sustainable, we must also harness our greatest natural resource to eliminate the carbon already in the atmosphere.

David King founded the Centre for Climate Repair at University of Cambridge. Jane Lichtenstein is an associate researcher at the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, also at the University of Cambridge.

This article is republished under Creative Commons license from The Conversation. You can read the original article.

Main image: Todd CravensThe Conversation