1) Studies prove the economic value of baleen whales is higher than ever thought
2) A global pledge at COP26 aims to reduce 2020 methane levels by 30% by 2030
3) Why both the climate crisis and biodiversity crisis are interconnected and need attention
In 2019 there was a landmark economic report that looked to quantify the economic value of whales due to their powerful roles in ocean health, nitrogen, carbon, and iron cycles, and sequestering carbon themselves. The number it landed on was about $2M a piece.
Now a new study focused on the baleen whale family – humpbacks, right, blue, minka whales and more (there are 14 species) – found that these species of whales eat about 3-5x more than previously estimated. Well when they eat more, they poop more as well, and that whale poop is absolute gold for the health of our oceans. Whales serve as carbon sinks not only from what they store in their bodies overtime, but the role their poop plays as well.
Together these two studies are really powerful and point to reasons to protect species like whales not for altruism and morals, although for sure those 2 things are very real, but for the actual economic value they provide us. They are worth far more to us alive than dead.
WHALE POOP IS OCEAN GOLD
Whale feces is kind of a big deal.
Most baleen whales feed on krill, which dwell at lower depths which is why baleen whales are such adept divers. These krill are rich in iron. However whales defecate up at the surface level of our oceans. Whale feces is super rich in that very same iron, along with nitrogen and other good stuff as well. Phytoplankton at the surface level need that iron for photosynthesis, which itself helps sequester carbon, and then feeds the very krill that started this cycle in the first place. Oh the joys of nature’s incredible circles of life.
Without whales, that iron would not get to the surface. Phytoplankton would be iron deficient, struggle to survive, struggle to sequester carbon, and other species like krill that feed on them start to dwindle as well. This is what we are talking about when we say biodiversity or “keystone species”, in this case the latter being assigned to these whales.
Scientists long thought baleen whales eat less than 5% of their body weight in food per day. However to get there, they merely extrapolated data from more known food consumption from say orcas, and multiplied it by a blue whale’s size. Hardly accurate. New precision studies use a combination of frequency and speed of krill dives, size of the mouth, and localized krill concentration. They found these whales actually eat 5 to 30 % of their body weight per day.
This means 5 to 30% more of that beautiful, nutrient rich poop. And there you have it, whales are even more valuable than we thought. And we already knew they were pretty darn valuable!
We are big proponents of these types of economic models to show how valuable threatened species are to us alive compared to dead. We can estimate the economic cost to us of more carbon in the atmosphere at this point – it ranges in most studies from $50 to $100 a ton in terms of cost of damages from storms, droughts and other issues global warming is causing. Well baleen whales sequester as much as 30,000+ tons of carbon per whale per lifetime. They also contribute to tourism and other ecosystem benefits as well.
Whether we like it or not, economics drives policy in this world. So as we can quantify that like Ralph Chami did in this study of wild species, it can better support policies to protect them.
At the same time, we also don’t want this to be the end all be all of deciding which species to protect. Because:
A) There is still so much about the natural world we do not understand in terms of how different life forms affect each other. We have barely scratched the surface scientifically
B) All life has value regardless of its economics because it’s alive, and that should be enough. Imagine a world where we decide which humans live or die based on their economic value to society…sounds very Black Mirror-esque.
Still, go whales. We’ve been so cruel to you so long yet you continue to create so much value for us.
Sources for this Story:
BIG TIME METHANE PLEDGE AT COP26
We’re going to send out a more comprehensive summary of COP26 and all the takeaways after the summit, but let’s trickle in a little update on one of the key Day 1 announcements.
For the first time, there is a global pledge to reduce methane emissions. A 30% reduction of 2020 methane levels by 2030. This hasn’t happened before, in fact our own EPA does not really regulate methane at all.
This is a big deal. Methane gas traps 80x more heat than Carbon Dioxide. And while there is far less methane in the atmosphere compared to CO2, it only stays up there for about 12 years, compared to 100 for carbon. Meaning big cuts in methane emissions will have more short-term impacts to slowing global warming than big cuts in carbon. To be clear, we need both, but methane cuts can really help us avoid the near term worst case scenarios. If this pledge is hit, it should shave 0.2C from warming, which is a lot considering we are sitting at 1.1C today compared to pre-industrial levels and need to ideally cap that at 1.5C.
Of course, it’s not all good news. The 3 largest global methane emitters – China, India, and Russia – did not sign the pledge. All the other major players from the US to UK to EU to Brazil to Japan did. India also shit the bed in announcing a net zero goal by 2070, whereas the Paris Agreement calls for this to be done by 2050. Soon we are going to have to start talking about India and Prime Minister Modi a bit more as they are really not carrying their weight here. It’s much more complex given India needs economic development in a way developed nations like the US do not – as many as 80% of India citizens live below the poverty level – but we’ll do a deeper dive on India another time.
THE US COMMITMENT
The US was one of the leading countries behind this methane pledge and announced some sweeping rules for its own EPA to enforce it. Focused for now on fossil fuels.
There are 3 main sources of methane emissions, all with roughly equally 1/3 of responsibility – oil and gas drilling, livestock, waste/landfills.
Oil & Gas is the most straightforward to tackle, which is why the US is starting there. When we talk about natural gas, we are talking about methane. Hence why you see the fossil fuel industry mislead you by saying this is a cleaner carbon source than oil and coal – sure, it’s methane not carbon primarily – but it’s also a big problem. Traditional wells have a lot of leakage which is primarily unregulated. New regulations would put much stricter conditions on fixing and assessing leaks and new rules for new wells that will make them a bit harder to get off the ground without investment upfront in leak protections. Methane is also a byproduct of some oil wells, and the EPA is planning on requiring this be captured and sold in the market and not just ignored to focus on the more valuable oil.
All told, the EPA predicts these changes will cost the oil and gas industry a total of $1.5B per year once fully implemented. So expect a major conservative backlash and pushback against these regulations. We’ll see if they hold. Biden has not been able to date to get conservative lawmakers on his side of the climate fight.
The other two major sources are not being tackled yet by the US, and the other pledge countries didn’t say much on these yet either. They are just more complex to address. Pushing cutbacks and regulations on factory farming livestock is going to be tricky at a time where food prices are rising from inflation, and the agriculture industry overall has the most lobbying power of any industry we have. Waste is a big issue as well, but there are not even proposals yet to really tackle it at scale. This has been ignored for too long by policymakers so hopefully this pledge starts to turn that tide.
This is great news. Provided, of course, the countries actually deliver AND those big three Methane contributors join as well. It’s hard to have faith in either right now, but we have to maintain some hope and optimism so we should applaud the pledge but hold those involved very accountable to deliver against it.
Expect the conservative end of things here in the US to come out shouting about how this pledge will increase gas and heat prices further. The troubling thing is they are not wrong. But this is less because it’s a hard truth and more because of how crooked our economics are.
Stricter rules on natural gas, in the short term, lead to higher costs which are shared across consumers. However, the economic damage from say adverse weather, which comes from allowing natural gas to continue as usual, is not shared equally across the board. That cost is borne primarily on the most marginalized who live in high flood, high drought, high storm areas with little room for recovery. The middle class and above that lead the opposition in shouting against short term higher heating costs don’t bear those weather damages the same way. In addition, those damages are handled by tax dollars primarily, again a degree of separation away from the direct consumer. Net total, the economic damages from worsening the climate outpace the costs of mitigating that damage, such as the $1.5B the oil and gas industry would bear to meet these methane caps. However those costs are not distributed the same way which is why these policies are so difficult to pass.
Here’s to hoping we can meet these goals and get China, Russia, and India to do the same.
THE LINK BETWEEN CLIMATE AND BIODIVERSITY
One of the more frustrating challenges we’ve seen in the past few years is everything from activism to corporate action sort of leaning towards either the climate crisis or the biodiversity crisis, with each camp kind of putting up their nose at the other. Which, if you understand both, is absolutely absurd given how interrelated these two issues are. They are both existential threats against our very existence. One may wipe us out before the other, but that is kind of impossible to predict.
They are truly indivisible, in that they directly lead to each other and would be impossible to separate. Yet, much of our media still does. So we want to level set this for you.
The climate crisis certainly gets more attention these days and we believe that is because it has more money flowing into it due to the energy transition at the heart of it. Those who lead that transition pose to make a lot of money. Where money flows, so does attention. We find that the climate camp will sometimes deprioritize the biodiversity camp, more so than vice versa.
CLIMATE & BIODIVERSITY
While both of these issues are very complex, in simple terms:
When we talk about climate we are primarily talking about the volume of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. There is way more than there ever has been, and this is causing our planet to warm, sea levels to rise, more intense and frequent extreme weather events, and so forth. Carbon gets the most headlines, because it makes up the highest volume of greenhouse gas – 415 parts per million (think of a unit of air made up of a million pars, Carbon is 415 of those, and 100 years ago it was just 275) – and it sticks around the longest, about 100 years. Methane traps heat at a rate 80x carbon, but there it is more short term and dissipates after about 12-15 years, and nitrous oxide is 10-15x more potent than methane, but there is even less of it. Remember all these GHG are bad. The natural gas industry likes to tout how much more carbon friendly it is than oil and goal. They are not wrong…..but the natural gas emits far more methane. Just this week one of the first global agreements at the UN Climate Summit is an alliance to Lower Methane emissions.
The Paris Agreement calls for us to keep global warming below 1.5C ideally 2.0C at all costs or things are going to get very, very bad. We are talking about flooding 100-200 days per year in most coastal cities, storms rendering places like Louisiana uninhabitable, wildfires that go year-long, and great wars over the shrinking global water supply due to droughts that would Mad Max Fury Road an actual part of life. In order to combat climate change and global warming, we need to drastically lower our emissions – half by 2030 and net-zero by 2050 – mostly driven by fossil fuels, we need to advance direct-air-capture and other scalable forms of carbon capture, but we also need to protect our incredible forms of carbon sequestration – our oceans, soil, plant and animal life.
When we are talking biodiversity, we are dealing with the collapse of species – over 1 million plant and animal species are critically endangered right now, the breakdown of our food web, an increase in viruses such as COVID due to distressed wildlife and human conflict, an increase in climate refugees as local ecosystems become unable to support life and grow crops. Species loss like wild pollinators will lead to increased food insecurity and loss of yields. The pollution in our oceans and overfishing are killing critical marine ecosystems by creating large dents in the food web. Toxins causing algae blooms, often run-off from all the chemicals we use to treat our lawns or agriculture or drinking water, lead to massive death in fresh water fish species killing surrounding ecosystems that depend on them for food.
And yes even parasites, potentially our key to unlocking future treatments against viruses and bacteria need protection as well. Check out this week’s podcast episode below for a deep dive into this world!
In order to combat the biodiversity crisis, we have to slow down deforestation, protect endangered plant and animal species, and stop mono agriculture and use biodynamic, regenerative farming. We are causing damaging changes to all natural ecosystems like we’ve never seen before, and without them, this planet can not support 7 billion+ people. No chance in hell.
OCEANS AND SOIL
There are so many nuanced and detailed ways these two issues interlock. Many more we still don’t even know. They are like two dance partners adept at Tango but commanded to dance and dance and dance to the point it is quite literally killing them, all for human entertainment, tired, exhausted, pleading for help to slow down and take a breath.
Yet keep ignoring them and clap along to amuse ourselves.
Maybe the simplest illustrations would be our oceans and soil. They are our two best natural carbon sinks. Oceans being #1. Soil being #2. This means, when healthy, they sequester a lot of carbon. Soil, for example, contains 2,500 gigaton of carbon, 3x as much in the atmosphere and 4x as much as plants and animals.
Climate change and biodiversity are casual and offshoot products of each other.
As the planet heats up and more GHG hits our ocean surfaces, this leads to ocean acidification (more acid), and this kills life such as coral reefs who can form their protective shells. That coral dies and with it the vast array of life that occupies it, which then negatively impacts the ability of coral reefs to sequester carbon, thus leading to more global warming which started the example in this chain in the first place!
As we continue to practice large scale, monoculture farming, we are using practices such as tilling and herbicides and pesticides that kill our soil, which then limits its ability to sequester carbon, which then leads to more global warming, which is leading to changing seasons and landscape hurting wild pollinators, which then lead to biodiversity collapse, requiring even more pesticides, which puts us back at the onset of this chain!
For a final demonstration of how these issues are linked together, let’s take forestation. Again another major natural carbon sink. Except for when we tear them down or wildfires burn them down. As we tear down forests, primarily in the name of low-cost agricultural growth – we weaken those forests by reducing habitat and driving plant and animal loss. Those weakened forests are also under increasing threat of higher temperatures and dryer conditions. This is making wildfires bigger and stronger and harder to stop. This further weakens forests and the biodiversity that keeps them strong, leading to less carbon sequestration, and more global warming. The Amazon itself has now crossed a point where it may be emitted more carbon than it sinks because of deforestation.
You see how these vicious cycles work? They are lethal, and once we get caught in them, they are very hard to unwind out of.
We should both stop picking sides here in these crises, as well as arguing about which one is the larger short and long term threat. If this planet is an electric car, the biodiversity crisis are the 4 wheels and the climate crisis is the battery. Good luck getting anywhere solving only 1 of those 2 and not both!