The posts today are like the weather: gloomy, but it’s the environment we live in.
The Washington Post just featured this report: The Arctic may have crossed key threshold, emitting billions of tons of carbon into the air, in a long-dreaded climate feedback.
Mike Brown, who was a member of Vancouver’s Clouds of Change Task force 30 years ago (the first report by a municipality on climate change), has been doing analysis and raising questions with respect to Canada’s permafrost (and our responsibility) with urgency and trepidation.
Here is his update:
An article from the Washington Post is making its rounds today. Permafrost thaw has made the mainstream!
It refers to two reports* about the state of affairs. Each says that there’s evidence that the annual net emissions (thaw in winter months minus growth in summer months) from the permafrost are now about .6 Pg of Carbon. Here is a quote from the NOAA Arctic Report:
“ . . . suggests that carbon release in the cold season offsets net carbon uptake during the growing season (derived from models) such that the region as a whole could already be a source of 0.6 Pg C per year to the atmosphere.”
Here is what the reports don’t mention.
- “0.6Pg” stands for 600 million tonnes, or 600 Megatonnes (MT) of Carbon.
- When Carbon is oxidized, each tonne is converted into 3.67 tonnes of CO2. So, this 600 MT of C becomes 2,200 MT of CO2. (And there will be some methane, but it’s not quantified.)
- If Canada has around 35% of the tundra area that bears the thawing material, that means that from our territory, there’s about 770 MT of CO2 coming off every year. (That percent which is ours needs scrutiny.)
That is the same as we emit as humans, and is our national target (“NDC”) as expressed in Madrid.
There is no indication in either article that this annual net number can be expected to decline.
The damage caused by this extra tonnage will, of course, be distributed all around the world. So, some will say “global problem”. However, we already claim credit for the carbon absorbed by our growing temperate rain forests – can we claim credit for one but not be responsible for the other?
If someone said: you have to fix this problem because keeping to the 1.5 degree limit is a sacred target, then at $100US per ton, which is the currently best estimate, this would cost us Cdn$100 billion per annum which about 4 or 5 percent of GDP. Right now, we spend about 10 percent of our GDP on health care.
The difference is this: we can affect the human emissions because that’s all voluntary. But there’s nothing voluntary about the permafrost. We claim “credit” for the carbon sucked up by our temperate rain forests, so how can we avoid the debit of the permafrost?
I am working away at taking these numbers and trying to extrapolate to the future. That’s always a tricky undertaking, but I will say this now: if we assume geometric change rates going back, we should be able to figure out when in the past the permafrost became a net source of CO2 rather than a sink.
This is all guesswork because nobody has tried to do it so far as I know. But let’s assume that this transition happened as recently as 50 years ago. If those same rates of change prevail (big, big question) then by the end of the century something in the order of 9 percent NET of all the carbon in the permafrost will have became gaseous, emitting (net) around 450 Billion tons of CO2.
If you think that’s a big, dangerous number, well, you’re right. It also looks to me that if ECCC is serious about getting to zero emissions by 2050, then Canadian emissions from permafrost could be four to five times as much as from humans by about half-way there (2035). To repeat, though, these are just numbers right now and need a lot of work to become more confident.
Those of you who like graphical representations, consider this. Total current emissions from Canadian territory are around 400 million tons; that’s about the same as 200 million cubic metres. That would build a wall from Victoria to Halifax which is about two storeys high and two storeys wide.
*Here are links to the two papers: