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  • Writer's pictureMalcolm Kennedy

How can whales help us reach the goals of SDG 13?

Updated: Mar 6

In 2015, the UN agreed upon seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), addressing a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues and providing concrete indicators of success for each. One of the most daunting and urgent of these is Goal 13, which addresses climate action. Goal 13 recognizes that in order to stay below the pivotal 1.5 degree mark of anthropogenic warming, we need to reduce emissions by 45% compared to 2010 levels by 2030. That is to say: we have our work cut out for us.

Where do marine industries fit into global emissions? While maritime transport accounts for a relatively small percentage of global emissions (around 2.5% — on a par with aviation), the industry is growing fast. Its carbon footprint will grow with it — by an estimated 50 - 250% by 2050 — unless the industry itself changes course. Luckily, there are some exciting developments on the horizon for reducing direct emissions, such as a return to wind propulsion.

Image from Mikkel Wejdemann on Pixabay

In the nearer term, one alluring approach is sequestration, where CO2 that’s already been emitted is taken back out of the atmosphere. Sequestration isn’t a substitute for emissions reductions — but we need both, since sequestration can help tackle past emissions, not just those we’ve yet to make. To date, artificial sequestration of atmospheric CO2 via direct air capture is costly — though this may change in the future.

Meanwhile, biological carbon sequestration is happening all around us in the form of photosynthesizing organisms, and can be increased by human action. Best known among these are trees, which are superstar sequesterers. Less well known are their charismatic marine cousins, phytoplankton. These free-floating photosynthesizers capture as much carbon as all land plants combined! Oceanic, or “blue” carbon, is involved in circulating 83% of the global carbon cycle.

And phytoplankton aren’t even reaching their full potential. When whale populations were brought to near-extinction levels in the mid-twentieth century, the global fertilization they provided for phytoplankton, known as the whale pump, ground to a halt. Now whale populations are re-growing, slowly but surely. Marine industries are uniquely placed to help, by mitigating some of the threats they face, like ship strikes and noise pollution. In doing so, they’ll be tapping into one of the world’s most powerful and overlooked natural sequestration systems. A report from researchers at the IMF recognized this opportunity and imperative, estimating the sequestration power of whales to be worth at least $1 trillion.

Whale Seeker is excited to be part of this solution, by building the first automated visual whale detection service. By speeding up and democratizing whale detection, we can give decision makers the tools to avoid conflicts with whales, allowing whale populations to re-grow to their former numbers, so they can get back to sequestering carbon and curbing climate change. Anyone doing business at sea — freight and passenger vessels, ports, you name it — will be able to help make this happen.


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