New paper underlines the importance of wildlife comeback as a climate change solution

Posted: 20th April 2023

Photo: Andoni Canela

Animals play a critical role in the global carbon cycle. A new paper shows how enabling the recovery of wildlife populations through restoration would go a long way to mitigating the worst effects of climate change. Supporting wildlife comeback is a key element of restoration projects supported by the Endangered Landscapes Programme, because healthy and diverse populations of animal species are a critical element of functional ecosystems.

Critical role of wildlife

A new paper, published in the leading journal Nature Climate Change, underlines how the recovery of wildlife populations could play a critical role in keeping rising global temperatures below the critical 1.5°C threshold. This would minimise the risk of extreme climate-related effects, such as heatwaves, droughts, rising sea levels, and wildfires.

Co-authored by 15 scientists from eight countries, the findings of the new paper demonstrate the value and urgent need of not only protecting the functional wild nature we have left, but enabling degraded ecosystems to return to full health through restoration at scale, which includes supporting wildlife comeback.

Each restoration project supported by the Endangered Landscapes Programme is facilitating wildlife comeback through restoring habitats and targeted releases. Photo: G. Safarek.

Animating the carbon cycle

Wildlife populations exert a huge influence on the carbon cycle in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems through a wide range of processes. Restoring such populations through restoration to enhance natural carbon capture and storage – which is known more popularly as “Animating the Carbon Cycle” (ACC) – is therefore one of the most impactful and immediately employable nature-based climate solutions.

“Wild animals contain only 0.3% of carbon held in biomass globally,” explains the Yale School of the Environment’s Professor Oswald Schmitz, lead author of the new paper. “Nevertheless, many species could exert very strong control over the carbon cycle by causing 15% to 250% differences in the amount of carbon taken up and stored in much larger carbon biomass pools, such as those in plants, soils and sediments, relative to conditions where animals are absent.”

The new paper presents data which shows that protecting or restoring populations of nine wildlife species (or groups of species) – marine fish, whales, sharks, grey wolf, wildebeest, sea otter, musk ox, African forest elephants, and American bison – could collectively facilitate the additional capture of 6.41 billion tons of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) annually. This is more than 95% of the amount needed every year (6.5 GtCO2) to meet the global target of removing 500 GtCO2 from the atmosphere by 2100, which could keep global warming below the 1.5oC threshold.

Wildlife is an essential component of ecosystems in both marine and terrestrial environments. Photo: FFI.

“We show that with just a few animals, we can enhance the uptake by an additional 6.4 Gt per year, reducing by half the amount of time to draw down the necessary amount of CO2,” says Professor Oswald Schmitz. “There may be an opportunity to draw down COeven faster if we consider and study a wider range of species and work to restore and protect the intactness of habitats across landscapes and seascapes.”

Let them be heroes

The new and updated European Wildlife Comeback Report, which was commissioned by Rewilding Europe and published in September 2022, shows that populations of key wildlife species – such as European bison and grey wolves in Europe – can and will make a comeback if we give them the right conditions to recover.

“Taking advantage of the game-changing climate potential of wildlife will require a change in mindset within science and policy,” says Rewilding Europe’s Executive Director Frans Schepers. “We need to act fast and at scale, because we are currently losing populations of many animal species at the very time that we are discovering the full extent of their critical role in the carbon cycle. Through rewilding, it’s time to let animals be our climate heroes.”

As shown by Rewilding Europe’s Wildlife Comeback Report, wildlife populations in Europe will recover if given the correct conditions to do so. Photo: Sergiy Kantsyrenko.

This article was originally published on the Rewilding Europe website. The full paper is available on the Nature Climate Change website

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