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Greenhouse Gas Emissions on the Rise as Permafrost Thaws

UNEP report urges Canada to set up national monitoring stations, develop adaptation plan

by Crystel Hajjar

Thawing permafrost and thermokarst lakes release greenhouse gasses in Siberia. Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video / flickr
Thawing permafrost and thermokarst lakes release greenhouse gasses in Siberia. Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video / flickr

DOHA, QATAR—The United Nations is warning countries about the irreversible consequences of the large-scale melting of the permafrost and emphasizing the need for monitoring and planning. A report released November 27 by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) warns that the thaw already in motion could release up to 135 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent by 2100. The report, “Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost,” also raises concerns about the accuracy of the current climate models since they did not include that additional amount of CO2 released in their projections.

"Permafrost is one of the keys to the planet's future because it contains large stores of frozen organic matter that, if thawed and released into the atmosphere, would amplify current global warming and propel us to a warmer world," said UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, in a press release announcing the report.
According to the report, the temperature in the Arctic is expected to increase twice more than the average temperature, so the projected three degrees Celsius average global increase means a six degrees increase in the Arctic Circle. This will cause the near-surface permafrost to melt at an unprecedented rate of 30 to 85 per cent. The thawing of the permafrost wasn’t monitored closely until recently, hence the most recent projection models do not factor the additional greenhouse emissions. Such a massive melting of the permafrost would cause irreversible damage to the ecosystem and the infrastructure incurring massive economic and social costs. 
"Its potential impact on the climate, ecosystems and infrastructure has been neglected for too long," Steiner added. "This report seeks to communicate to climate-treaty negotiators, policy makers and the general public the implications of continuing to ignore the challenges of warming permafrost.”
The report was released on the second day of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) climate conference COP18 in the hopes of encouraging negotiating countries to act accordingly. 
"The release of carbon dioxide and methane from warming permafrost is irreversible: once the organic matter thaws and decays away, there is no way to put it back into the permafrost," said lead author Kevin Schaefer, from the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center, also in the release. "Anthropogenic emissions' targets in the climate change treaty need to account for these emissions or we risk overshooting the 2°C maximum warming target," he added.
The report includes three policy recommendations in order to better address the consequences of these new findings. It recommends that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers conducting a study on the impacts of this additional increase in emissions. Moreover, countries with permafrost–specifically Canada, the United States, Russia and China–should be more effectively monitoring the area by creating monitoring networks and expanding the coverage areas. Finally, it recommends that adaptation plans for these countries are essential to deal with the potential environmental and economic consequences of melting permafrost.
While there has been no response on the report from Canada yet, the country continues to play an obstructive role in the negotiations. On Tuesday, Environment Minister Peter Kent said that Canada will be holding back its contributions to the Green Climate Fund, a funding mechanism that will help developing countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, until 2020. 
Crystel Hajjar is reporting for the Media Co-op from the COP18 conference in Qatar. Read the first article in the series, Climate Legacy in Question, and stay tuned for more news from Doha.


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Topics: Environment
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