May 18 2021
As the Paris Agreement was initially signed over five years ago, it has set the standard for the global measure to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, with over 70 nations taking on aspiring Nationally Determined Contributions that surpass initial obligations charted in the Agreement.
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But a new study reported recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) claims that the carbon budget on which these commitments are based does not consider the latest science on Arctic feedback loops and calls for global leaders to reconsider emissions goals.
Arctic warming poses one of the greatest risks to our climate, yet it has not been adequately incorporated into existing climate projections and policies. To build effective policy to address the climate crisis, it is essential that we recognize the full scope of the problem.
Dr Sue Natali, Study Lead Author and Director, Arctic Program, Woodwell Climate Research Center
In the last 10 years, quick Arctic warming has led to record-breaking Siberian heatwaves and extreme northern wildfires—which discharge enormous amounts of carbon into the air—the loss of Arctic sea ice and a speeding up of permafrost thaw.
For thousands of years, arctic permafrost has been piling up and storing carbon that contains around twice the amount of carbon that is, at present, in the Earth’s atmosphere and discharging that carbon into the air as it thaws.
Those emissions aggravate warming, which activates more thaws, possibly resulting in an exponential rise in warming and emissions in the future. The new study reveals that present carbon budgets fail to consider such carbon emissions from permafrost, and the hazardous climate feedback loops they will trigger.
Based on what we already know about abrupt thaw and wildfire, these feedback loops are likely to substantially exacerbate the permafrost thaw feedback and resulting carbon emissions. Unless our models account for these anticipated effects, we'll be missing a major piece of the carbon puzzle.
Dr Rachael Treharne, Study Co-Author and Researcher, Woodwell Climate Research Center
For the Earth’s temperature to be retained less than 1.5 °C or 2 °C, the study suggests decision-makers integrate the new science on Arctic carbon emissions into climate models and carbon budgets utilized to notify policy and update the risk evaluations to find out how rapidly people need to decrease emissions to address the climate goals.
The science alone is not enough. We urgently need communication between scientific and policy communities to make sure our climate policies are effective in addressing the scale and scope of the climate crisis.
Dr Philip Duffy, Commentary Co-Author, President, and Executive Director, Woodwell Climate Research Center
The study was co-authored by Woodwell Climate Research Center scientists Susan M. Natali, John P. Holdren, Brendan M. Rogers, Rachael Treharne, Philip B. Duffy, Rafe Pomerance, and Erin MacDonald.
Natali, S. M., et al. (2021) Permafrost carbon feedbacks threaten global climate goals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.2100163118.