Last week The Scientific American newsletter talked about the viability of using a carbon credit system to revive declining whale populations. So in today’s Finshots, we discuss a bizarre but plausible idea of protecting whales to fight climate change.

The Story

A single great whale is worth $2 million.

No, we’re not talking about how much whalers net by killing whales for their oil, blubber, and bone. What we’re saying is that we could extract $2 million worth of value if we save these whales!

Because here’s the thing they don’t teach us in school — Whales can absorb and store carbon dioxide. And well, school definitely taught us that CO2 isn’t the friendliest of gases for our planet. It warms the atmosphere and leads to a gradual rise in global temperature. So while we’re busy talking about renewable energy and planting more trees, we ignore one crucial element in this picture — the role of whales and other wildlife in combating climate change.

You see, whale poop is rich in nutrients like iron, phosphorus and nitrogen. And these are exactly the kind of nutrients that phytoplankton such as ocean algae need to spur growth. Now guess who produces more than half of the world’s oxygen? Phytoplankton, of course! And they’re not just great at producing all this O2, they’re also quite brilliant at absorbing CO2. Yup, it’s equivalent to having 4 Amazon rainforests for this very reason.

So if you draw out the equation, it tells you that if we have more whales, we’ll have more phytoplankton, and ergo, we can remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It’s called the ‘whale pump’.

It’s not just that. These massive whales also store carbon dioxide in their bodies. As much as 1,000 trees can hold. And when they die, they sink and take all this carbon to the bottom of the ocean floor where they remain for many, many years.

Now that you have all these facts, imagine the harm we caused over the decades. Not just to the whale population by mercilessly hunting them down but also to global warming. In fact, scientists found that before we embarked on industrial whaling, the population of whales might have sunk so much carbon into the ocean each year, that it would be like taking nearly 410,000 cars off the road. Instead, we killed them and released all that carbon into the atmosphere.

And now we’ve reduced the whale population by 65–90% in the past couple of centuries and we’re just left with 1.5 million whales. It’s a sorry state of affairs.

But what can we do to turn things around and get a buy-in from everyone to protect these majestic creatures?

Well, introduce an element of capitalism, of course! And conjure up financial investments at the intersection of whales and carbon capture.

This isn’t some whimsical idea we thought of. Something of this sort is already happening. Last year, a group of organizations banded together and took matters into their own hands. They kick-started something called the ‘Whale Carbon Plus Project’. It would bring finance and AI (artificial intelligence) — two things which everyone loves today — together to work their magic to save whales.

So how will this work, you ask?

For starters, the project would use AI to track the whales’ movements. And then issue a bond against it. A company could buy that bond and instead of an interest on the investment, they’d get a carbon credit. Maybe to the tune of how much carbon the whale helps us save. They can then use that carbon credit to offset their own emissions. Or even sell it to someone else who needs it to show they’re trying to at least solve their carbon footprint. All this money can then be put towards conserving whales.

Sounds quite brilliant, doesn’t it?

But here’s the thing. It’s still in its teething stages and there could be some problems.

For one, as Anjana Ahuja pointed out in the Financial Times, it means we’re basically handing over whale ownership to a company. It doesn’t seem like quite a nice thing to do. And second, quantifying the impact of a financial system like this could be a tricky affair. Putting the exact carbon savings per whale for issuing the requisite credits will be hard and then having a third-party vet and audit these numbers will be harder still.

And not to forget those big carbon-emitting companies could simply see this as a way to publicly make a statement. To tell people they’re concerned. In the meanwhile, they’ll continue to do as little as possible to actually reduce their emissions.

But hey, the idea is still new. We’ve tried similar sort of green bonds in the past, so maybe we’ll find a way to have whale bonds too. And if we throw numbers like $2 million per whale out there, perhaps it could entice everyone.

We’ll save our whales. We’ll save our oceans. We’ll save ourselves from climate change.

Until then…

PS: Some people have pointed out that the idea of whale carbon credits was published as a prank paper. But as we mentioned, there are organizations such as the Whale Carbon Plus Project that are trying to work on such whale bonds. As their website says, "we aim to deliver verified carbon/biodiversity credits to marine industries in the next two years." So yeah, while it's still too early to say whether its just wishful thinking or whether it can actually become a reality, you can bet that the work is on.

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