Humans have heard the cry to “save the whales” for decades, but there’s a new call to understand how it is that the great whales – threatened themselves by climate change, plastic pollution and more – might really be saving us.
In fact, existing whales may be worth an estimated US$1 trillion in terms of their contributions to overall ocean health and they need to be protected because of their critical role in carbon sequestration. That’s according to an unlikely scientific duo, one a career economist at the International Monetary Fund and the other a leading whale conservationist, who suggest that the whales are an international public good worth assigning a monetary value for their role in the fight against climate change impacts.
Michael Fishbach, the executive director of Great Whale Conservancy, recently joined IMF assistant director Ralph Chiami in an IMF podcast interview to discuss why the great whales may be as critical to a warming world as the Amazon rainforest or the Congo Basin in Africa.
Chiami, along with three other colleagues, authored a forthcoming paper that describes their method for assigning value to the carbon sequestration the whales provide. Some of that work was recently published in the IMF’s online Finance & Development magazine.
“The lungs of the planet are actually in the ocean,” says Chiami, noting that ocean phytoplankton captures at least 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year – at least four times what the Amazon does. It also generates about 50 percent of all oxygen produced. The whales have a unique role in promoting phytoplankton growth through excretion of key minerals in their massive fecal plumes, but they also hold enormous amounts of carbon in their bodies.
Whales have long lives, ranging up to 200 years, but when that life is over and the whale sinks to the bottom of the ocean, each one sequesters for centuries an additional 33 tons of CO2, on average. By comparison, a tree absorbs about 22 kilograms of CO2 per year, according to the conservancy’s data.
Using a much more conservative 60-year whale lifespan, and adding in the value of whales in tourism, fisheries and other sectors beyond emissions, the IMF-led team calculated their value at $2 million each. It vastly exceeds the value of whale meat through hunting, Chiami said, and a new financial framework for whales (similar to those used in fighting deforestation) could create incentives to boost their global numbers.
“If whales were allowed to return to their pre-whaling numbers—capturing 1.7 billion tons of CO2 annually—it would be worth about $13 per person a year to subsidize these whales’ CO2 sequestration efforts,” the F&D article adds. That raises new questions about how cost and compensation should be allocated, who would oversee it and how compliance would be enforced.
Those are hard questions at the heart of all global climate finance negotiations, but they are necessary to help policymakers get serious about meeting climate targets — and to see the value of majestic whales and the “blue carbon” they capture.