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:


  1. Thanks for alerting us to this data and for the links to the two papers so we can read them. Just wanted to acknowledge this important post, as I’m expecting it will be ignored and without comment.
    Come on Susan/Thomas, tell me what an old fool I am for keeping my total annual C02 emissions for everything from food to clothes to transport to vacations below 2.87 metric tonnes (and I had no kids AKA have no skin in this game).

    1. Cost-benefit analysis of energy forms is often missing. Net zero attempt by EU, NZ or Canada is laudable as an asprirational goal, but the huge costs are ignored and benefits very minor while India and China pump out coal dust and CO2 in massive, ever increasing quantities. Why isn’t Greta in SE Asia protesting ? Or in Africa, such as river pollution, a far more serious issue than harmless plant food.

      Just 10 river systems carry 90% of the plastic that ends up in the ocean. Eight of them are in Asia: the Yangtze; Indus; Yellow; Hai He; Ganges; Pearl; Amur; Mekong; and two in Africa – the Nile and the Niger.

      Climate change is a real problem. Some of it man-made, and some of it will have negative consequences, and some positive. But trying to stop emitting CO₂ by 2050 or sooner is a very expensive way to do almost no good. Look to New Zealand, as one example, and the only country to have actually made an estimate of the cost of achieving carbon neutrality. Huge costs !

      1. Thomas, are you writing in your panties again? Is that alias how you are *feeling* right now?

        your comments are so off base again it’s clear why you need to hide behind another persona. If your own health was at stake, like the health of the planet is, you wouldn’t be griping about the cost. But I’m beginning to see that you wouldn’t recognize if your health was at stake.

        It is people with the highest emissions who have a responsibility to cut the most. When we lead those in poorer nations will follow.

        1. Carbon reduction or being net zero by 2050 is a nice aspirational goal but it is very VERY expensive. It’s not warming all that much and the hype is off the chart re weather related disasters or climate death, when in fact the opposite is true !

          As such, CO2 reduction is NOT a key issue nor an urgent one. Look no further than the recent US or now UK election that folks had had enough of this alarmist BS.

          Socialism painted green is far more appealing to brainwashed masses like our youth than communist red. I get it that many in Canada love the socialist Nordic nation models but they haven’t woken up yet to the horrendously high cost of carbon reduction with minimal, if any, meaningful benefits !!

          Other far FAR more urgent issues – also all costly and competing with CO2 reduction for cash or tax $s – are:
          1) reducing starvation / hunger worldwide for 1-2 billion more is 10B people ie inexpensive food production & distribution is critical. Making energy more expensive will not help there. We need the opposite: far FAR cheaper energy
          2) pollution of rivers or oceans, eg plastics and ag runoffs
          3) air pollution from CO, NOx, methane or SO2, or coal dust
          4) disease elimination such as cancer or Hep C etc
          5) human rights abuses, dictatorships, drugs, cartel violence
          6) homelessness / affordable urban housing – also see latest Vancouver budget discussions
          7) energy costs – which have to go DOWN not up to provide cheap food for billions and to wean us off carbon burning air polluting coal or diesel fuels !

          1. ‘Carbon reduction is expensive.’ True statement.
            ‘when in fact the opposite is true!’ False statement.
            ‘Its’ not warming that much.’ False statement.
            ‘CO2 reduction is NOT a key issue nor an urgent one.’ Outright lie.
            ‘Socialism painted green is far more appealing to brainwashed masses like our youth than communist red.’ Confession of a communist sympathizer?
            ‘horrendously high cost of carbon reduction’. Assertion without evidence.
            ‘FAR more urgent issues’. No, because climate change is already the cause of many of these issues and in four or five generations from today will likely dominate all of them.

            the subject is permafrost.
            This carbon report implies an irreversible situation as far as human action is concerned. This is a situation that most human beings will consider dreadful. Even though we know the consequences of carbon emissions, we are apparently unable to act in a way that preserves the same natural world that the past has known. We have come to understand this thought cluster as a thing called “Climate Change”.

            Climate change. There is no future in spoofing reality, we are all trying to prepare ourselves for the journey ahead. Things will change little as a few years go by, but in time beyond our signature, generations will inherit a much changed natural world by degrees depending on what we collectively do today

          2. Regarding elections and “alarmist BS,” conflating politics with science just doesn’t compute. Think round peg / square hole, oil / water, apple / orange.

            One thing that cuts through political propaganda is economics. India is now moving off of coal. Why? Because solar and wind have completely outcompeted it on price alone in the auction markets. The byproduct of this will be cleaner skies and lower emissions. And this is ultra-conservative Nerendra Modi’s territory.

            Not an alarmist in sight.

  2. The observations in this report suggest that the atmosphere is about to get really hot and angry no matter what anyone collectively tries to do about it. This data if true means that zero emissions from human activity is not sufficient to reverse the atmospheric heating processes now in motion. Should we believe this to be the real situation? If yes, then what?

    For us humans living in the city (2019) maybe the entire story is inconsequential. After all we can not pretend to be the nature balanced beings we once were. Even in the countryside we are still dependent on burning wood and fossil fuels for self sufficiency. One hopes for a better balance, it is always possible I suppose, to live in the country side, in the forest, on the beach in a self sufficient way with a good collection of botanical books……..and a few tools. This is about as zero as one can imagine. Few would go to that extreme.

    1. Burning wood is not the problem – as long as you take responsibility for regrowing the biomass at the same rate at which you are burning it. It can be done.

      A wise rabbit once said, “with absolute freedom comes absolute responsibility”. (Well he was dressed as a rabbit at the time.) I would have that expand to, “with increased understanding comes increased responsibility”. Understanding will never be absolute but responsibility for one’s actions is a given. We do understand the consequences of our (in)actions and it is up to us to take responsibility for it. Increasingly that means negative emissions.

      We need to decarbonize as quickly as possible. And we need to create the means to remove the carbon from the atmosphere that we’ve already put there. You can say, “and then what”, if you want. But it cannot be rhetorical excuse. You know “what”. I shouldn’t have to spell it out for you.

      Your responsibility is not diminished because others make excuses.

        1. Do everything you can reasonably do to reduce your carbon footprint. Vote for those who will implement strategies and investments to reduce and eliminate carbon emissions from those parts of the economy where individuals have no control.

          (I shouldn’t have had to do that.)

          1. Here’s what I can reasonably do:
            Eat a vegan diet, much of which I grow myself (my 2nd biggest C02 producing item at 1.2 tonnes annually)
            Buy clothes, household stuff and electronics second hand
            Don’t ride in ICE cars unless I can’t avoid it (0.04 tonnes this year)
            Travel only by long distance bus or train for vacations (1.5 tonnes last year because I travelled a lot)
            Don’t use ‘cloud’ (servers consuming huge amounts of electricity – up to 27% of which is coal generated)
            Don’t use streaming services for the same reason
            Mend things that break or wear out.
            Help others in my community to make their own clothes and mend things that break.

          2. Awesome, Penny.

            If the majority did these things we’d have truly made a huge difference by now. The goal needn’t be to reach zero tomorrow but to start making a serious effort and add steps as new opportunities become easier. Everybody can choose their own path to get there.

            My work demands the cloud and I give myself a fail on streaming. I don’t pretend to have it all figured out. But my transportation is super low carbon with only one round trip flight since 2010 and no car. No kids (although somebody has to). My ex and I are responsible for the existence of the local community garden and I volunteer (about 100 hours this year) tree planting and other forest health management at Pacific Spirit Park. My goal is to be carbon negative retroactive to 2010 with the caveat that those trees will be doing some of that work long after I’m gone.

            I don’t know how to inspire others to take steps in their own way but I’m really tied of all the excuses.

  3. If you are growing your own food, eating vegetarian style, mending your clothes, then you are about as balanced as balanced can be no matter where you are living: country or city.

    The carbon picture includes many things beyond the ‘consumable’ choices that we have, that we normally do not consider, they include the so called ‘durables’, things we need: washers, dryers, stoves, refrigerators, water heaters, furnaces, sinks, faucets, tubs, bicycles, etc. all the things that end up in a home that come with a carbon cost that are not counted but considered essential items of our lifestyle, then of course there is the construction of the home itself following most likely a wasteful demolition, all of which entails heavy industrial machinery, but that’s not all, because the home has to be connected to a street, curb and sidewalk which also has to be built after the storm water pipes, water, and gas pipes have been manufactured, fabricated, and laid, after the electrical and cable lines are laid. The final act involves more heavy machines planting bushes, trees and laying sod. When all this has been completed you go to work till 65 to pay the rent or the mortgage and your taxes for the use of some of this, you go to work participating in an economy that produces carbon emissions. This is the back story to our good citizen efforts.

    Most carbon emissions produced by constructing and operating the city are not counted by urbanists, planners, builders of the city, suppliers of the city. They are not counted, but they do show up in the observations of atmospheric scientists as a parts per million number which is then related to another number, the temperature of the planet.

    If you know how to practice a zero carbon life style, then you are in a position to drive larger changes.

    1. That is mostly BS Jolson. Where do you get the idea that those things are not counted? It’s all counted! It’s true that some of it is counted on the balance sheets of other nations. We must consider our part in those emissions and that isn’t being done properly – yet. And the emissions from the infrastructure that was placed before we began counting emissions is not properly accounted for. But the fuels burned by the heavy machinery needed to construct our buildings and infrastructure is counted locally. Same for the local production of concrete. Same for all parts of the industry who’s emissions are created locally.

      Vancouver is leading the region in the first steps toward deconstructing/re-using/recycling old building materials and other municipalities will follow. This is in large part because we have collectively voted for progressive councils. It is what we all can do beyond our own personal adaptations.

      Everybody is in a position to drive larger changes. We do that in part by voting. We do that in part by choosing the durables we rely on – very much including the home in which we live, it’s embodied footprint divided by its likely lifespan.

      It is certainly part of a new and evolving conversation, but LEED has considered embodied energy since it began and Passive House is also beginning this journey toward those solutions. Just because we haven’t figured it all out yet doesn’t mean that leaders aren’t leading the way out of our mess and that many individuals, organizations and corporations haven’t begun running with that.

      It’s all well to recognize our shortcomings but it is defeatist to dwell only on those. The problems are not without solutions and we are making progress. It is sometimes excruciatingly slow, but the change is exponential and there’s still good reason not to give up. Exponential growth has been the crux of our problem but exponential change is a hopeful part of the solutions.

      1. Well said Ron!

        When you divide the construction C02 cost of a dwelling by the number of years it will provide shelter (plus as you point out, the reuse of it’s materials on deconstruction) and by the number of people who will dwell in it over that time, the annual C02 for each inhabitant is vanishingly small. Fifty tonnes of C02 a brick house (Mike Berners Lee 2010, link here and that is bound to much lower for a wooden house, especially if you include the temporary carbon sequestration in growth of the tree.
        Ditto costs of storm water pipes and services etc. Divide C02 by number of residents using them then by the years they will remain in use to get the minute figure involved.

        Remember Jolson, keeping the atmospheric levels static, we only need to keep our personal annual footprint to 2.87 metric tonnes according to the most up to date UN figures. Perfectly doable..

        Jolson has included so much low hanging fruit in his/her excuses for inaction!
        ‘things we need: washers, dryers, stoves, refrigerators, water heaters, furnaces, sinks, faucets, tubs, bicycles’
        No one needs a drier, I’ve never used one. A clothes airer in winter and the washing line in summer works just fine.
        Everything else can be bought second hand, reducing the footprint annually over the course of it’s life to again, being vanishingly small.

        ”The final act involves more heavy machines planting bushes, trees and laying sod.’
        So don’t plant sod, a total waste of potential veg space and use a spade for those C02 absorbing fruit bushes and trees for heaven’s sake!

  4. In 2018- Canadian carbon emissions per capita was 16.1 metric tons. (wiki)

    You claim to be personally allowed to emit 2.87 metric tons is leaving you with a deficit of 13.3 metric tons. This difference represents the deep industrial complex that delivers and caters to your every want and need. It begins with digging raw materials out of the earth and ends with a ring on the doorbell. The vanishingly tiny as you put it turns out to be astonishingly large when multiplied by the population of the planet and released into the atmosphere over the course of a few centuries.

    1. Canada’s emissions are terribly uneven. Omit Alberta and Saskatchewan and we are well on the way to meeting our Paris Agreement limits early. BC’s emissions are quite low by comparison. Ontario’s were dramatically lowered soon after it eliminated coal-fired power. If Alberta and Saskatchewan followed through on the old and pathetic Wexit threat (I heard that 50 years ago while growing up in Calgary), it would have the highest per capita emissions on Earth, even higher than Saudi Arabia. And it’s not just oil sands. Alberta’s per capita emissions will still be the highest in the nation even if you eliminated its oil and gas industry. There is a price to be paid for inefficient urban planning and land use and “needing” big gas guzzling toys.

      Barry Saxifrage has not only done the math, but provided very cool illustrations that are painfully simple and devastating.

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