Carbon Capture & Sequestration: The Elephants Do It, Why Can’t We?
Carbon capture and sequestration projects in the US are hitting a wall. Local residents don’t like them and regulators are giving them the stinkeye. Financial and technological obstacles also abound. Meanwhile, researchers are beginning to put a dollar figure on the value of the carbon capture and sequestration provided by forest ecosystems while making the case for elephant conservation, too.
Learning Carbon Capture & Sequestration From The Elephants
To be clear, reforestation alone will not climate-proof the planet. In addition, reforestation is not just a simple matter of planting a million trees, or a billion, or even a trillion. For example, projects that focus on forest products for harvest have been linked to the increased risk and intensity of wildfires.
Instead, forest advocates have been underscoring the importance of biodiversity restoration over raw numbers.
In that regard, we can learn a lot from the elephants. They are persistent and they know how to get stuff done.
To get in the mood, check out elephants in action in the upcoming new Nat Geo series Incredible Animal Journeys, with Jeremy Renner as narrator. The series starts on Nat Geo TV this Sunday, November 19, then goes to Disney+ and Hulu on November 20.
The International Monetary Fund has taken notice of the economic value of elephants in regards to reforestation and climate action. The IMF features an article about the forestry skills of elephants in Africa on its website under the title, “The Secret Work of Elephants,” in which the authors note that forest elephants have been secretly working on carbon capture and sequestration projects all along.
“As it turns out, these elephants fight climate change by contributing significantly to natural carbon capture,” they note, describing the process by which elephants thin out young trees, leaving mature trees to grow larger and taller.
Elephant-Style Carbon Capture & Sequestration, By The Numbers
The authors of “The Secret Work of Elephants” make the case for conserving and restoring the elephant population as an efficient, economical carbon capture and sequestration strategy.
The world has some catching up to do in that regard. The authors cite 1.1 million as the number of elephants previously at work in the African rain forests, but in recent times poaching and deforestation have peeled the population back to less than 10% of its former size.
That’s a loss for the climate as well as for the elephants. “The increase in carbon storage caused by forest elephant activity is huge — as well as valuable,” the authors note. They cite research showing that carbon capture in Africa would increase by 13 metric tons per hectare if the forest elephant population regained its former size and range.
“Since the former range of African forest elephants was 2.2 million square kilometers, each of which comprises 100 hectares, and forest elephants are now at about 9 percent of their pre-poaching population, carbon capture from a recovery of these elephants could be equivalent to more than 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per square kilometer,” the authors write. “That is the same amount of carbon dioxide captured by over a quarter of a million trees, or 14 times what is captured by trees in New York City’s Central Park.”
The Economic Case For Ecosystem Services
The authors also deploy the figure of 2.2 million square kilometers to put a dollar amount on the carbon capture benefits of a fully restored elephant population. Based on the 2019 figure of about $25 in 2019, the ecosystem service provided by elephants would total more than $150 billion.
That value is an important contrast with the value of poaching. “If we then take the total value of the service provided by African forest elephants and divide it by their current population, we find that each elephant is responsible for service worth more than $1.75 million,” the authors note. “On the other hand, the ivory of an elephant killed by poachers fetches only about $40,000, so it is clear that the benefits from a healthy and thriving elephant community are substantial.”
The authors also make a broader point about the value of ecosystem services, an emerging accounting field that is just beginning to mature into full blown policy making. Here in the US, for example, in January the Biden administration directed all federal agencies to include the value of nature in cost-benefit analyses.
In August, the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs issued an explanation of the accounting principles at work.
“The environment benefits our lives every day: Timber provides the structure of buildings that underlie our economy. Pollinators help grow our food. Healthy forests reduce wildfire risk and improve air quality. Wetlands help to manage flood risks and provide habitat for fish and wildlife that support an outdoor recreation economy,” they explained.
“Because nature provides us with so many things without cost, these benefits — called ‘ecosystem services’ — are not always fully captured in benefit-cost analysis, which the U.S. government has used for decades as a way to check that regulations and investments are making a positive impact on Americans’ lives,” they continued.
“Failing to fully account for nature’s bounty has led to under-valuing and erosion of our nation’s natural assets. When we account for our environment, we are able to harness opportunities to confront climate change, promote prosperous and resilient communities, and invest in strong infrastructure. We must measure what we value, not just value what is simple to measure,” they emphasized.
On the corporate side, the New York Stock exchange is also working with the organization Intrinsic Exchange Group to establish a new class of Natural Asset Companies focusing on ecosystem services.
Carbon Capture & Sequestration On The Rocks
Fans of traditional, infrastructure-centric carbon capture and sequestration projects will not give up without a fight. However, the ecosystem services field is building momentum while CCS is still struggling, despite a heavy larding of public funds.
The nation’s showpiece carbon capture and sequestration was supposed to be the billion-dollar FutureGen CCS project for a coal power plant in Illinois, which launched in 2003 during the Bush administration only to have the rug pulled out from it by the Obama administration in 2015.
Another high profile CCS project at the San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico similarly bit the dust after failing to keep the plant up and running. San Juan shut down last year, though the company behind the CCS project, Enchant Energy, is reportedly trying again at another plant in New Mexico.
Good luck with that. The most recent example of CCS meeting the brick wall is a proposed 1,300-mile carbon pipeline in the Midwest, which was canceled by its developer last month after encountering opposition from, well, everyone.
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Image: African elephants via dropbox/Lydia Thompson courtesy of Nat Geo.
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