It's managed to invent lots of things – from Moby Dick to teeny tiny plankton – that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for us. The downside is that we’re not always so good at leaving those things alone and letting them get on with it.
One mature whale sequesters more carbon than 25-100 trees. When they die, they sink to the floor taking the carbon with them.– Big blubbery tonnes of goodness
Peatland, peat swamps and bogs are the biggest carbon gobblers on land, covering 3% of the Earth’s surface.– Listen to Monty Don…
First, the biological pump: where things like plankton suck in the carbon from the surface, creatures eat it, creatures die, creatures sink, and it ends up towards the ocean floor where it tends to stay put as sediment.
Second, the physical pump: where it dissolves into the ocean and whizzes around in currents, and gets pulled down into deeper parts, with cold water able to store more. Generally, the deeper the carbon goes in the water the longer it will stay away from the surface; about 3,000 metres is the magic point at which storage becomes particularly effective. Some models think it takes anywhere from 300 to 1,000 years from waters from the deep to end up back at the surface.
Geoengineering options are being looked at to artificially inject carbon into the oceans - as another stay of execution - but it is not without risk (#oceanacidifcation).
They come to the surface to breathe - and to poo - and the iron-rich droppings help create the perfect conditions of phytoplankton, the ultimate little green carbon guzzlers. (On a slightly weird side note, rare sperm whale poo is also highly prized by the perfume industry - it acts as a fixative - though its collection is illegal in certain countries, including the US).
If whale activity increases phytoplankton productivity by just 1%, it would be the carbon capturing equivalent to the sudden appearance of 2 billion mature trees.
If you valued whales as carbon munching machines, based on how we currently view systems with the ability to decarbonise, then the IMF estimates that a single great whale value would be $2 million. That puts the value of the global whale population at over $1 trillion.
They’re also the most cost-efficient flood defences we've got; their trunks and root systems take the energy out of big waves and help soil build up. Vast swathes were removed in the last decades of the 20th century - at least 35% - chopped down for wood and to make room for prawn farms.
Destroying them (digging them up e.g. for compost, draining them, fires) doesn’t just reduce the world’s ability to suck C02 out of the air, it actually releases back what’s stored; damaged peatlands contribute about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from the land use sector. Fires in Indonesian peat swamp forests in 2015 pumped out nearly 16 million tonnes of CO2 a day - that is more than the daily emissions from the entire US economy.
They’re also watery spongey biodiversity hotspots, supporting creatures from insects and birds to Sumatran tigers, Orangutans, gibbons and weird and wonderful tiny fish. One in ten plants found in peatlands are not found anywhere else.
If an animal eats up to a third of a plant, that plant gets a little buzz and extracts carbon from the air to help it heal itself. That carbon gets sucked down into the soil. The plant renews itself, it’s all good. But, if an animal eats more than 30%, then the plant starts to lose its ability to regenerate. If it eats over 60%, then it is really, really, unhappy. It’s not able to regenerate and therefore stops sucking climate out of the air.
So how do we make sure only a third of grass is eaten? At a minimum we rotate grazing lands, moving animals on before they eat too much, and ideally we rotate them whilst mixing grazing animals, as different species eat different grasses and plants. Regenerative farming is a growing trend across the world - and is a way in which we can use livestock such as cows to actually help store carbon.