We Have to Talk About Permafrost – 3 Must Knows

By Debra Tan, Chien Tat Low 20 February, 2023

Permafrost thawing could derail global decarbonization efforts. Already today, emissions equivalent to Japan's annual GHGs is being emitted annually and we aren't accounting for it. CWR's Tan & Low lays everything out, as well as what we need to do

At 1.1C, we have unlocked permafrost thaw = Japan's annual GHG; must deep cut to avoid crossing further tipping points or we will lock-in EU or US annual emission at 2-3°C
We must get our carbon budget right as permafrost thaw could shrink carbon budget by ~100Gt + trigger a feedback loop = derail global decarbonisation efforts
Collaboration is key to tackling permafrost carbon; sanctions against Russia has paused on funding & research on Arctic permafrost = accelerate climate breakdown

It’s bad. We have not really accounted for the full extent of permafrost melt in our carbon budget AND on top of that, permafrost thaw is worse than we thought … so we will have to cut emissions by A LOT MORE.  How much more we hear you ask. Well, that’s the scary part… we have summarised all you need to know on this front into 3 must-knows below

After reading it, you too will know why we have to talk about permafrost and why solving this may be easier said than done…

1. It’s VERY BAD! 1-3°C or warming locks-in additional emissions equivalent to Japan or USA every year!!!

According to the ICCI 2022 State of Cryosphere Report, permafrost is already thawing and releasing greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere. The report warned that at today’s warming of 1.1°C, emissions released is sizeable – equivalent to Japan’s GHG emissions annually.

Today’s warming of 1.1°C = annual permafrost thaw emissions = Japan’s GHGs…

…at 1.5°C = India’s GHG emissions…

…current policies & actions will bring us closer to 3°C so by 2100 = US GHG emissions today!

Here comes the bad news … even, if we were to limit warming to 1.5°C, we will be committing to permafrost thaw releasing yearly emissions as large as the GHG emissions of India today. At the 2°C threshold, annual emissions from permafrost thaw estimated to be equivalent to the current GHG emissions of the entire EU will be locked-in.

Brace yourself, the reality is our current policies and action will bring warming closer to 3°C which will commit annual permafrost emissions by 2100 on par with US annual GHG emissions today – an additional 5Gt/year!

Clearly the unlocking of such sizeable permafrost emissions should freak the hell out of us as all signs now point to reaching 1.5°C a lot sooner than we thought … the WMO estimates that the world faces a 50% chance of crossing 1.5°C by 2026 and while we may still hang on hopes, that was dashed at COP27, when it was confirmed that “there is no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place”.

This process is irreversible; preventing future warming & thaw is the only way

So what if we overshoot 1.5°C? Surely, we can dial it back and all will be resolved? WRONG. Sadly, permafrost thaw doesn’t work that way, once it starts, the thaw is locked-in and additional source of emissions will be released into the atmosphere. This process is irreversible and could last for hundreds of years even if the temperature reduces and permafrost re-freezes. In short there is no “undo” option – preventing further warming and thaw is the only way.

Now that the window of opportunity to stay within 1.5°C has gone; we must do whatever it takes to stay within 2°C because we cannot unlock permafrost emissions equivalent to the EU every year. Time is of the essence, the faster we decarbonise, the higher the chances of staying within 2°C and avoiding more thaw.

Rapid deep cuts are a must but the current bonanza in oil to fuel the Ukraine war is doing the opposite. Given the escalation at the start of the year with no sign of potential peace talks in the pipeline, surely we should brace for the worst?

If the war and oil boom continues, surely responsible parties like NATO nations (the same ones that are championing climate action) should start accounting for permafrost emissions into our global carbon budgets. Remember, they are already sizeable today – equivalent to Japan’s annual emissions – this brings us to our next point …

2. Lying to ourselves = have to cut much more as not fully recognised in the carbon budget

None of the above trajectories for emissions released from permafrost thaw are accounted for in our global carbon budget. If they were, our carbon budget would shrink, leaving us less room to maneuver. So what are the real numbers?

Our carbon budget has yet to consider emissions from permafrost thaw, which is ~100Gt of CO2…

…thus, the ‘actual’ carbon budget for staying within 1.5°C would run out in <5 yrs

According to the IPCC, our carbon budget for a 67% chance of staying within 1.5°C is 280Gt from the start of 2023. To account for these additional emissions from permafrost thaw, scientists estimate that 100Gt of CO2 will have to be subtracted from the current global carbon. This is a whopping 36% of the remaining 1.5°C carbon budget ex-permafrost of 280Gt.

So, if emissions were to continue at current levels (~40Gt p.a.), the carbon budget including permafrost of 180Gt would run out in less than 5 years!! This highlights the humongous scale of challenge – transitioning to net zero is even harder than we think.

The deadline is ridiculously tight … even for a 67% chance of staying within 2°C – the IPCC says the carbon budget ex-permafrost is 1,030Gt; including permafrost emissions, it will be around 930Gt. At the current levels of emissions, we will eat this up in around 23 years! In other words, we have to stop emissions by 2046 or earlier. Clearly, lying to ourselves by not accounting for permafrost could kill us all faster.

All this just highlights the irresponsibility of all warring parties – they are fighting the wrong wars; there is only ONE WAR we should all be fighting and that’s the global climate fight to save our planet.

Arctic is warming 4x faster than the rest of the world…

…warmer summers have caused more Siberian wildfires that have released 150mt of carbon

This fight is urgent as high temperatures and wildfires in Siberia persist, accelerating thaw. Warmer summers in the Arctic (warming 4x faster than the rest of the world), have caused more Siberian wildfires in 2019 and 2020 than the previous 39 years.

The enormous carbon release of 150mn tonnes from Siberian fires within the two years showed how quickly northern ecosystems can switch from carbon sinks to carbon sources under accelerated Arctic warming. More worryingly, these wildfires have triggered abrupt permafrost thaw and are set to release more carbon into the atmosphere, leading to more global warming by creating a feedback loop.

Permafrost’s potential to derail global decarbonization effort is simply too big to be ignored – Arctic permafrost stores twice as much carbon than is currently stored in the atmosphere.

“Permafrost’s potential to derail global decarbonization effort is simply too big to be ignored”

Every year we don’t do something is one more year of feedback loops that deliver a vicious cycle of more emissions and permafrost thaw. Not including this in our global carbon budget is just lying to ourselves that this is not happening. This year, it’s time to wake up like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland … we have to say NO to the blue pill and take the red pill.

We must start taking permafrost seriously; we must get the global carbon budget right if we’re going to have any chance of saving our planet. But then even if we have figured out how much, we still need to work together to resolve our permafrost challenge …

3. Collaboration is key to tackling our permafrost challenge – but what are the chances of Russia and the US/Europe sitting down to talk?

Calculating and including estimated emissions from permafrost thaw into the global budget, albeit difficult, is just the first step. Ongoing international cooperation will be essential to develop more effective observation networks plus close funding gaps in fast-evolving research in this critical but nascent area.

Arctic Council has suspended cooperation with Russia, which does not bode well for our planetary future…

The Arctic Council, the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, seems like the sensible place to start, especially since it should be an old-hand at tackling high geopolitical tensions as it was formed during the cold war. Unfortunately, seven of the eight members (US, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland) have suspended cooperation with Russia.

This exclusion of Russia, which controls the largest share of the Arctic Ocean coastlines does not bode well for our planetary future. While they still maintained dialogue through the height of the cold war because they cared about the future of our planet, they no longer talk nor want to as Russia has been exalted as the “supreme enemy”.

…scientific research on Arctic climate is in peril as most of the data is gathered by scientists in Russia

As a result, scientific research on Arctic climate is in peril as most of the data is gathered by scientists in Russia. Such data is unlikely to be shared with non-Russian scientists any time soon, partly due to restrictions imposed by funding agencies in Europe and the US.

Rising rhetoric and increasing sanctions, have also made funding such research more difficult; it shouldn’t be given the vital importance of permafrost thaw to our existence. But as European leaders are now calling to ban Russia from the Olympics (which should be free of politics), the chances of the US/Europe funding research let alone sitting down with Russia to talk are slim.

The Ukraine war derailed many regional collaborations but we must put aside our differences and collaborate on permafrost as it has the potential to accelerate the climate breakdown in ways in which have yet to be fully understood. Mis-steps at this juncture could send us all zooming down the highway to climate hell at much faster speeds than we thought.

Politics must not get in the way, we’ve been warned…

…trade wars & nationalism points to >4C of warming by 2100

Politics must not get in the way – we’ve been warned … the IPCC scenario SSP3 – “regional rivalry – a rocky road” – defined by trade wars and a resurgence of nationalism points to >4°C of warming by 2100. At this level of warming we will likely lock-in permafrost emission of around10Gt/year – this is equivalent to China’s annual emissions today!

We should all be terrified; this could very well be the path we are on right now. We must make peace not war; time is not on our side. We have to set our differences aside and talk to each other. If the Arctic Council cannot talk politics, then sit down and a have serious conversation about permafrost – it’s a giant elephant in our carbon budget that we can no longer afford to ignore.

Further Reading

More on Latest

Debra Tan
Author: Debra Tan
Debra heads the CWR team and has steered the CWR brand from idea to a leader in the water risk conversation globally. Reports she has written for and with financial institutions analyzing the impact of water risks on the Power, Mining, Agricultural and Textiles industries have been considered groundbreaking and instrumental in understanding not just China’s but future global water challenges. One of these led the fashion industry to nominate CWR as a finalist for the Global Leadership Awards in Sustainable Apparel; another is helping to build consensus toward water risk valuation. Debra is a prolific speaker on water risk delivering keynotes, participating in panel discussions at water prize seminars, numerous investor & industry conferences as well as G2G and academic forums. Before venturing into “water”, she worked in finance, spending over a decade as a chartered accountant and investment banker specializing in M&A and strategic advisory. Debra left banking to pursue her interest in photography and also ran and organized philanthropic and luxury holidays for a small but global private members travel network She has lived and worked in Beijing, HK, KL, London, New York and Singapore and spends her spare time exploring glaciers in Asia.
Read more from Debra Tan →
Chien Tat Low
Author: Chien Tat Low
Low has extensive inter-disciplinary research experience, which although wide-ranging, focuses on identifying hotspots to facilitate better planning. At CWR, Low uses spatial modelling and statistical analysis as well as remote sensing, cartography, and geo-statistics to map and assess water risks. In addition, he helps manage CWR’s extensive network of contributors and partners. CWR is Low’s first foray outside academia and he hopes to apply his 12 years of scientific know-how toward enhancing the understanding of water risk in Asia, including spatial temporal variabilities of anthropogenic and natural factors on water resources. Previously, Low was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong where he devised methodologies to measure and benchmark the quality of urban life in an Asian context. As a certified GIS Professional, he also taught GIS and spatial analysis modules there. Low’s research on urban, human and environmental health is published in 11 prominent international peer-reviewed journals; he has also written a chapter in a book on managing environmental hazards. His PhD thesis on place effect on human well-being was prize-winning. Low is currently the reviewer editor for the journal “Frontiers in Environmental Informatics” and also reviews other international journals such as “Applied Geography”.
Read more from Chien Tat Low →