U.S. Greenhouse-gas emissions strategy – and a growing problem

The editorial board of the reliably Republican Washington Post oddly enough is one of the fiercest advocates for climate science and taking bold steps to address global warming. They take climate change and the risks and challenges it presents seriously. The Post has done numerous editorials on this topic.

The Post in an editorial this week praised of President Obama’s greenhouse-gas emissions strategy. President Obama’s emissions-cutting plan sets an example for the world:

carbon-emissionsPRESIDENT OBAMA’S climate plan is no longer just at the center of a domestic debate about coal country and the Environmental Protection Agency. On Tuesday, the Obama administration made the president’s greenhouse-gas emissions strategy an official international commitment, staking the good faith and reputation of the United States on its fulfillment. It’s an important step that should prod other nations to follow suit.

The components of Mr. Obama’s plan were largely known before Tuesday. The EPA will demand a 30 percent cut in greenhouse emissions by 2030 from the carbon-heavy electricity sector, an effort that will contribute to the closure of old coal-fired power plants the country should have retired years ago. The plan also calls for efficiency improvements in commercial buildings and appliances, vehicles that burn less fuel, the phaseout of harmful refrigerants and a reduction of methane leaks from natural gas operations. Administration officials say the plan can be implemented under existing law — and will be before Mr. Obama leaves office. They say it can achieve an economy-wide emissions cut of 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025.

Proof that this sort of U.S. leadership matters came in November, when the emerging U.S. carbon dioxide plan helped persuade China — the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter but traditionally a reluctant partner in anti-emissions efforts — to commit to an ambitious greenhouse-gas control plan of its own. Critics who insisted that American effort wouldn’t do any good because no one would follow were proved wrong. Mexico since has submitted a serious emissions commitment, as well. The major nations of the world must respond to scientists’ warnings, and U.S. leadership is a necessary prerequisite.

The Obama administration’s commitment represents a more realistic approach to climate diplomacy than past efforts. Instead of attempting to impose emissions cuts via a legally binding treaty, the United Nations is asking governments to submit voluntary commitments based on assessments of their own circumstances. Climate negotiators will collect and certify these national submissions at a conference in Paris this year.

Such commitments aren’t as certain as treaty obligations. In the United States, for example, a Republican president could all too easily curb or cancel the U.S. commitment. But Mr. Obama is taking achievable steps, and we can hope that continuing progress, along with the urgency of the problem, will create a logic of its own.

In a related story today, Chris Mooney of the Post reports that rapid Arctic warming could undermine the efforts to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Why the thawing of frozen soil in the Arctic should concern everyone:

When we think about the Arctic in a warming world, we tend to think about sharp declines in sea ice and — that powerful symbol — the polar bear. But that’s far from the only problem that a melting Arctic brings.

In the past decade, scientists have been training more attention on another deeply troubling consequence. Rapid Arctic warming is expected to lead to the thawing of a great deal of frozen soil or permafrost, which, as it thaws, will begin to emit carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere. And if this occurs in the amounts that some scientists are predicting, it could significantly undermine efforts to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed, scientists have discovered a simple statistic that underscores the scale of the potential problem: There may be more than twice as much carbon contained in northern permafrost as there is in the atmosphere itself. That’s a staggering thought.

Permafrost is simply defined as ground that stays frozen all year round. There’s a lot of it – it covers 24 percent of the surface of the northern hemisphere land masses, according to the International Permafrost Association. But more and more of it is thawing as the Arctic warms, and these frozen soils contain a vast amount of organic material — largely dead plant life — in a kind of suspended animation.

“It’s built up over thousand and thousands of years,” says Robert Max Holmes, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. “It’s all stored away in a freezer, and as we’re warming the Earth, and warming the Arctic, it’s starting to thaw.”

As permafrost thaws, microbes start to chow down on the organic material that it contains, and as that material decomposes, it emits either carbon dioxide or methane. Experts think most of the release will take the form of carbon dioxide — the chief greenhouse gas driving global warming — but even a small fraction released as methane can have major consequences. Although it doesn’t last nearly as long as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, methane has a short-term warming effect that is many times more powerful.

Among the potential mega-problems brought on by climate change, including melting ice caps to the slowdown of the ocean conveyor system, permafrost emissions are unique. For it’s not merely about sea level rise or weather changes — it’s about amplifying the root problem behind it all, atmospheric carbon levels.

The emission of carbon from thawing permafrost is what scientists call a “positive feedback.” More global warming could cause more thawing of Arctic permafrost, leading to more emissions of carbon into the atmosphere, leading to more warming and more thawing of Arctic permafrost — this does not end in a good place.

Moreover, in a year in which the world will train its attention on Paris and the hope for a new global climate agreement, permafrost emissions could potentially undermine global climate policies. Even as the world starts to cut back on emissions, the planet itself might start replacing our emissions cuts with brand new carbon outputs.

All of this, and the Arctic permafrost problem hasn’t received much attention — yet . . . Indeed, the problem is so new that it has not yet made its way into major climate projections, Schaefer says.

“None of the climate projections in the last IPCC report account for permafrost,” says Schaefer. “So all of them underestimate, or are biased low.”

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According to a 2013 report from the National Academy of Sciences, northern permafrost contains 1,700 to 1,850 gigatons of carbon — a gigaton is a billion metric tons — which is more than double the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere (730 gigatons, says the NAS). And over 1,000 of those gigatons are thought to be stored in the top three meters of permafrost soil.

Nobody’s saying all of that is going to come out — certainly not immediately, and maybe not ever. However, as the Arctic continues to warm over the course of the century, emissions from permafrost could ramp up, and they could eventually reach a scale that could begin to offset climate gains. “It’s certainly not much of a stretch of the imagination to think that over the coming decades, we could lose a couple of gigatons per year from thawing permafrost,” says Holmes.

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Later this month — on April 24 — the United States takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, a group of eight nations with Arctic territories that helps to coordinate policy for the region. The State Department has specifically indicated that one of the focuses of the two-year chairmanship will be the issue of climate change. So, will permafrost emissions enter into policy considerations?

“This is a dangerous feedback loop as Arctic warming drives permafrost thaw, and the permafrost releases more GHGs into the atmosphere, accelerating change,” said a State Department official. “However, many questions remain about the processes by and time scales over which such emissions could be released into the atmosphere.”

The official said that through the Arctic Council, the United States will emphasize better monitoring and observation systems to detect emissions from permafrost. But the officials also underscored the importance of “an ambitious international climate agreement in Paris – this is where we need action to slow climate change.”

The concern is whether such an agreement will arrive soon enough to stop or at least blunt the permafrost problem. It’s “a true climatic tipping point, because it’s completely irreversible,” says Schaefer. “Once you thaw the permafrost, there’s no way to refreeze it.”

Finally, Chris Mooney posts this infographic, The whole globe is warming — but look at how much of it is caused by the Northern Hemisphere:

Consider this visualization, from the Post’s Kennedy Elliott, which is based on data from NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory:

Screenshot from 2015-04-02 14:55:46

Infographic: Where carbon emissions are greatest. (Kennedy Elliott)

“The Northern Hemisphere, home to almost 90 percent of the world’s population, is where the majority of atmospheric carbon dioxide originates,” writes Elliott. Indeed, of the world’s top ten cumulative greenhouse gas emitters from 1850 to 2011, only two, Brazil and Indonesia, are at least partly situated the southern hemisphere (and each has contributed about 1 percent of the global total).

These are not just idle observations — the situation has significant implications for the difficult international politics of climate change.

As the world seeks to achieve a global climate agreement in Paris later this year, one major issue will involve the calls from small island nationsAfrican nations, and numerous other states for even stronger greenhouse gas cuts than many major industrialized nations have thus far been willing to accept.

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