Future of the Environment

Whales are vital to curb climate change - this is the reason why

The fluke of a sperm whale sticks out of the sea as it dives in the sea near Rausu, Hokkaido, Japan, July 1, 2019. Picture taken July 1, 2019.    REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon - RC1128EC8ED0

The IMF values a single great whale at more than $2 million. Image: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Future of the Environment?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Future of the Environment is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Future of the Environment

  • Whales store huge amounts of CO2
  • They support the growth of phytoplankton, which stores 40% of all carbon produced
  • A 1% increase in phytoplankton productivity is equivalent to 2 billion mature trees

They are majestic, massive and mysterious - and they could hold a secret for combating climate change.

Now, researchers have put a price on the value that whales bring to the world.

Have you read?

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has estimated the value of a single great whale at more than $2 million - which comes to more than $1 trillion for the current stock of great whales.

Image: GRID-Ardenal

The IMF based its figures on each whale’s contribution to carbon capture, the fishing industry and the whale-watching sector, which is worth over $2 billion.

If we helped whales return to their pre-whaling numbers of 4- to 5 million (up from 1.3 million today), researchers say they could capture 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 annually - with the cost of protecting them at just $13 per person a year.

Whales vs trees

Over a lifespan of around 60 years, whales - especially great whales, such as right and grey whales - accumulate an average of 33 tonnes of CO2. When they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, locking that carbon away for hundreds of years.

By comparison, a tree absorbs up to 48 pounds of CO2 a year.

Part of the carbon capture potential for whales comes down to their role in increasing phytoplankton productivity wherever they go - a phenomenon called the ‘whale pump’.

As they rise up through the ocean to breathe and migrate across the globe, the iron and nitrogen in their waste provides ideal growing conditions for these microscopic creatures.

Image: IAEA

And while they may be small, phytoplankton play an enormous role in regulating our atmospheric conditions - contributing at least 50% of all oxygen and capturing an estimated 37 billion tonnes (40%) of all CO2 produced.

The IMF calculates that’s the same as the amount captured by 1.7 trillion trees, or four Amazon rainforests’ worth.

A 1% increase in phytoplankton productivity linked to whale activity could mean the capture of hundreds of millions of tons of additional CO2 a year, equivalent to 2 billion mature trees, according to the IMF.

Save the whale

But the world’s whales are at risk - impacting on their ability to help us tackle climate change.

Although commercial whaling has been officially banned since 1986, more than 1,000 whales a year are still killed for commercial purposes, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

At the same time, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing rapidly. In May 2019, the levels of CO2 passed 415 parts per million - the highest level in human history.

The ocean helps to regulate the climate by holding 50 times more CO2 than the atmosphere, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But even a small change in the way carbon enters the ocean could affect the ocean’s storage capacity.

A recognition of the contribution whales make could be a valuable alternative to costly and untested proposed technological solutions, such as capturing carbon directly from the air and burying it deep underground.

It’s a new way of looking at the whale population - and the impact could be earth-changing.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Future of the EnvironmentOcean
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Earth Day: What is it, when is it and why is it important?

Lindsey Ricker and Hanh Nguyen

April 11, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum