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The costs of melting permafrost

Researchers have for the first time modelled the economic impact caused by melting permafrost in the Arctic up to the end of the twenty-second century.

The effects of melting permafrost in the Arctic could cost $43 trillion in extra economic damage by the end of the next century. This is in addition to the $300 trillion of economic damage already predicted according to researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Colorado in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change. This roughly corresponds to the combined gross domestic product last year of the US, China, Japan, Germany, the UK, France and Brazil.

The Arctic is warming at a rate that is twice the global average, due to anthropogenic, or human-caused, greenhouse gas emissions. If emissions continue to rise at their current rates, Arctic warming will lead to the widespread thawing of permafrost and the release of hundreds of billions of tonnes of methane and CO₂ – about 1,700 gigatonnes of carbon are held in permafrost soils in the form of frozen organic matter.

Rising emissions will result in both economic and non-economic impacts, as well as a higher chance of catastrophic events, such as the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, increased flooding and extreme weather. Economic impacts directly affect a country’s gross domestic product (GDP), such as the loss of agricultural output and the additional cost of air conditioning, while non-economic impacts include effects on human health and ecosystems.

The scientists report that if emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise as they are doing now, the thawing of the permafrost and the loss of the ice caps could release 1,700 billion metric tons of carbon now locked in as frozen organic matter.

The scientists used a computer model to simulate the impacts of what is now known as the business-as-usual-scenario, in which the world goes on burning more and more fossil fuels, until the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reaches 700 parts per million.

The researchers’ models predict $43 trillion in economic damage could be caused by the release of these greenhouse gases, an amount equivalent to more than half the current annual output of the global economy. This brings the total predicted impact of climate change by 2200 to $369 trillion, up from $326 trillion – an increase of 13 percent.

Their conclusion for expensive inaction: an extra $43 trillion bill. An aggressive strategy to limit thawing of the permafrost, on the other hand, could save the world $37 trillion.

Reinhold Pape
Source: Science Daily and Climate News Network
Journal Reference: 1. Chris Hope, Kevin Schaefer. Economic impacts of carbon dioxide and methane released from thawing permafrost. Nature Climate Change, 2015; DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2807

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