A Surprisingly Uplifting, and Effective, Way to Sequester Carbon

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Mother Nature knew a few things we humans have overlooked.

This story was originally published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

As the world increasingly turns toward natural climate solutions like reforestation and grassland restoration to sequester carbon, it may be overlooking a crucial ally: animals. 

Protecting existing populations and restoring others to their natural habitats often improves the natural capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide within ecosystems, according to a study published today in the journal Nature Climate Change. Robust populations of just nine species, such as sea otters or gray wolves, or genera, including whales, could lead to the capture of 6.41 gigatons of CO₂ annually, the researchers found. That’s about 95 percent of the amount needed to be removed annually to ensure global warming remains below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

In “Trophic rewilding can expand natural climate solutions,” led by the Yale School of the Environment and the Global Rewilding Alliance, 15 international experts compare the carbon content in savannas, forests, and other ecosystems when their wildlife populations were healthy and when they were below historical numbers. They found multiple cases in which thriving populations of certain species, particularly large vertebrates, through acts like foraging, burrowing, and trampling, increased an ecosystem’s carbon storage capacity by as much as 250 percent.

The researchers argue that these essential species disperse seeds, facilitating the growth of carbon-sequestering trees and plants. Others trample or eat the vegetation that would otherwise rob those trees of space and nutrients. Predators prey on herbivores that, without predation, might adversely impact that essential fauna.

“Ecological science has had a long history of overlooking the role of animals as an important driver of the biogeochemistry of ecosystems,” Oswald Schmitz, an ecologist at the Yale School for the Environment and an author of the study, told Grist. “What we say is that we know animals can change the vegetation makeup of ecosystems, and a lot of ecosystem ecologists say vegetation is important for ecosystem function and carbon cycling, then surely the animals must be important, too.” 

According to the study, keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels not only requires reducing fossil fuel emissions but removing around 500 gigatons of atmospheric CO₂ by 2100. Natural solutions, like protecting and restoring forests, wetlands, and grassland ecosystems can help, but such measures, implemented at their current pace, will not do the job in time. Restoring animal populations, or “trophic rewilding,” can accelerate the rates of sequestration and storage in a process called “animating the carbon cycle.”

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