A fascinating IMF report published this month suggests that if you want to capture carbon, planting trees may sound good but is relatively ineffective. A far more dramatic reduction in our CO2 emissions could be achieved by increasing the great whale population and thereby the phytoplankton that thrives on whale excrement.
IMF modeling suggests that if the number of whales grew to enable even a 1% increase in phytoplankton in the oceans of the world, that phytoplankton would capture hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 a year, equivalent to the sudden appearance of 2 billion mature trees.
But it is not just the phytoplankton that captures carbon. The whales themselves are massive carbon sinks. They accumulate carbon in the their bodies – over 33 tons over the course of a long life. (Approximately 300 kilograms a year if the whale lives for 100 years.) When they die, they take that carbon to the bottom of the ocean where it remains locked up for centuries. A mature tree’s best efforts will only absorb around 25 kilograms of carbon a year and that is not locked up for ever.
Biologists estimate that industrial whaling has reduced whale populations by around 75%. If whales were allowed to return to their pre-whaling numbers of 4–5 million what a dramatic effect that could have on our ability to capture CO2.
The issue, the IMF report goes on to say, is that while planting trees is easy for local governments to implement, enabling whale populations to recover requires international cooperation which is hard to achieve. They suggest that putting a monetary value on the benefits that a whale could deliver would be a first way to motivate nations to come together to this end. Their conservative estimate of the value of a great whale would be $2 million.
And while the IMF is promoting whales, conservationist Costas Christ, writing in the NYT, is telling us that far from saving the planet by not flying, we could be doing just the opposite.
Flying can be good
His point is that although a great dealing of flying is unnecessary and does add to global warming, the benefits derived from long distance travel in terms of conservation far outweigh the damage it does. (And just for the record, while aviation accounts for approximately 2.5% of human induced CO2 emissions, deforestation accounts for around 20% – as much as all forms of transportation put together.)
Tourism in general is a massive generator of income for third world countries. And nature based tourism is a top foreign exchange earner.
By 2030 tourism to Africa alone is projected to reach $260 billion and most of that is to visit wild life parks, endangered species and heritage sites. Last year, for example, 1.5 million people visited the Serengeti where they paid a minimum of $60 a day entrance fees. Take that away and the vast plains will be turned into cattle ranches – thereby massively increasing our output of the mega warming methane gas.
Meanwhile, tour operators plough significant funds into conservation works and, more importantly, local communities understand how this tourism can benefit their communities and become active partners in conservation and saving nature.
But stop people flying and you will put an end to all of this as there is no way that the rich world’s tourists can visit the poor world’s natural wonders without flying there.
Better, Costas Christ suggests, to put out efforts into pressurising the aviation industry to develop ‘green flying’ – developing synthetic jet fuels, for example, or electric planes – than ‘shaming’ ouselves into not flying.
Thanks to The Week and Tom Ogren who alerted me to these reports.
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