Protecting the Earth by protecting whales

3 December 2019

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Resilience in the Arctic: Facing the Future. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) researchers estimate that whales are worth $2 million US each to the planet because of their tremendous ability to sequester carbon.

In the December issue of the IMF’s magazine, Finance & Development, a group of researchers report that whales’ bodies can sequester 33 tons of CO2 on average over their lifetimes—and every time a whale dies and sinks to the ocean floor, that carbon is removed from the atmosphere for centuries. In comparison, a tree absorbs about 48 pounds of CO2 per year. The authors argue that restoring the world’s whale populations to preindustrial levels would be akin to planting four Amazon forests’ worth of trees, or about 1.7 trillion.

Researchers arrived at the $2 million US figure—which they call conservative—by calculating the value of the carbon sequestered by a great whale over its lifetime (based on estimates of the amount whales contribute to carbon sequestration and the market price of CO2), then factoring in today’s value of whales’ other economic contributions, such as fishery enhancement and ecotourism, over their lifetimes.

The catch: for this lowtech climate solution to work, whales need protection—and there is a cost to that. The researchers argue that coordinating the economics of whale protection should be the top of the world’s climate agenda.