Earth is warming at an alarmingly fast rate, as human activities – such as the burning of fossil fuels – continue to pour excess heat-trapping carbon dioxide, and other gasses, into our atmosphere. But wild animals help store carbon. That is, they remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere every year, preventing it from warming Earth and thereby mitigating global warming. And, on March 27, 2023, Yale University scientists announced a new study, showing just how effective the protection and restoration of wild animals to their natural environments can be, in helping to curb global warming via carbon storage.
The study showed that protecting or restoring wild animal could collectively lead to the additional capture of 6.41 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. That’s 95% of the amount needed each year to meet the target of the Paris Agreement, an international treaty originally adopted by 196 nations in 2015.
The Paris Agreement aims to remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to keep global warming below a 1.5° Celsius threshold.
Oswald J. Schmitz of Yale led the new study, which included 14 other authors from eight countries. The team looked at nine wildlife species, including marine fish, whales, sharks, grey wolves, wildebeest, sea otters, musk oxen, African forest elephants and American bison.
The team studied animals in diverse environments, from dry land environments to freshwater to marine ecosystems. Animals in all of these ecosystems remove carbon from Earth’s atmosphere via diverse activities, including foraging, nutrient or organic carbon deposition (by which gasses and particles from the atmosphere are transported to land and ocean surfaces), as well as by soil disturbance and seed dispersal.
The team’s research showed that either the presence or absence of wild animals in specific ecosystems fundamentally changed the carbon uptake and storage there. Schmitz commented:
Wildlife species, throughout their interaction with the environment, are the missing link between biodiversity and climate.
This interaction means rewilding can be among the best nature-based climate solutions available to humankind.
Declining animal populations
The team found that, as animals become extinct in an ecosystem, their absence could transform habitats from carbon sinks to carbon sources. And, in the last 50 years, the world’s wildlife population has declined by 70%. So, they said, solutions to the climate crisis and biodiversity crisis are interwoven.
There’s even a name for restoring animal populations to enhance carbon storage; it’s called animating the carbon cycle.
The nine wildlife species studied by these scientists are just a starting place, these scientists said. They recognized other species with a high potential to store carbon. Those include the African buffalo, white rhino, puma, dingo, Old and New World primates, hornbills, fruit bats, harbor and gray seals, and loggerhead and green turtles. The study claimed:
Natural climate solutions are becoming fundamental to achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement …
Expanding climate solutions to include animals can help shorten the time horizon.
More land animals that fight climate change
Marine animals that fight climate change
A lion cub, via the EarthSky community
Bottom line: A new study shows that protecting wildlife can play a huge role in carbon storage and limiting climate change.
Kelly Kizer Whitt has been a science writer specializing in astronomy for more than two decades. She began her career at Astronomy Magazine, and she has made regular contributions to AstronomyToday and the Sierra Club, among other outlets. Her children’s picture book, Solar System Forecast, was published in 2012. She has also written a young adult dystopian novel titled A Different Sky. When she is not reading or writing about astronomy and staring up at the stars, she enjoys traveling to the national parks, creating crossword puzzles, running, tennis, and paddleboarding. Kelly lives in Wisconsin.
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