'Rewilding' animals could help combat climate change, study finds

Two gray wolves.
Two gray wolves. Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Restoring certain wildlife populations could aid in mitigating climate change, a new study has found. Specifically, the report highlighted how large animals like elephants, whales, bison, and sharks are as effective as forests at capturing carbon, writes the New Scientist.

"There's been skepticism in the scientific community that animals matter, because if you just do the accounting, they'd say animals don't make up much of the carbon on the planet, so they can't be important," said Oswald Schmitz, lead author of the study. But the findings show that maintaining the populations of reef sharks, gray wolves, wildebeest, sea otters, musk oxen, and ocean fish, along with growing the populations of African forest elephants, American bison, and baleen whales, could capture 6.41 gigatons of carbon per year.

"Wildlife species, throughout their interaction with the environment, are the missing link between biodiversity and climate," Schmitz said. The United Nations has warned against average global temperatures rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which could lead to widespread ecological problems. The study found that current methods for combating climate change, including renewable energy and habitat maintenance, are alone "insufficient" in keeping the world from passing the 1.5-degree threshold. "This interaction means rewilding can be among the best nature-based climate solutions available to humankind," Schmitz continued.

On the other hand, some experts have argued that the study's findings may obscure the larger picture. "I think there is real potential for synergies between wildlife conservation and carbon storage, [but] I am wary of anything like this being touted as a 'global warming game changer,'" commented the University of Oxford's Yadvinder Malhi. "The science is not yet robust enough."

"Trying to get this into international climate frameworks could even be a distraction from the only real global warming game changer," he went on, "which is keeping fossil fuels in the ground."

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