In this second instalment of Arctic Episodes, we talk about perhaps the largest single game-changing component of the Earth system, the sleeping giant of Climate Change -- Permafrost.
The Arctic is an isolated potpourri of untouched natural beauty and ecosystems. Despite its serenity, the white polar landscape is one of the coldest and harshest environments to live in. The fact that both simple and complex organisms thrive in its characteristic tundra climate is astonishing.
Over recent years, regrettably, climate scientists have been observing an unprecedented anomaly in the Arctic region which might disrupt the region’s ecology and the global climate as a whole.
With 9 of the 10 hottest years on record being after the year 2000, the tipping point in Climate Change may be upon us; potential effects of global warming which themselves contribute to further warming have started to emerge, forming self-reinforcing (positive feedback) loops and accelerating Climate Change.
The first observable trend of such a feedback loop was covered in the previous Arctic Episode – the melting of Arctic sea ice. As we described, the disappearing sea ice has become both an effect and a cause of Climate Change. In this second Arctic Episode, we will discuss how thawing permafrost is increasingly becoming a major contributor to the same cause-effect-cause cycle of Climate Change and discuss its regional and global impacts.
First Things First, What is Permafrost?
About a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere and a staggering 17% of Earth’s entire exposed land surface is comprised of Permafrost or permanently frozen ground, which is nothing but land that has been frozen at or below 0°C for two or more consecutive years.
Composed of rock, sediments, soil and varying degrees of ice, permafrost is mainly found at the poles covering parts of Greenland, Alaska, Northern Canada, Siberia and Scandinavia. Additionally, it is also found at high-altitude areas such as the Rocky Mountains and the Tibetan Plateau and at the bottom of the ocean floor mainly in the Arctic and the Antarctic.
Ranging from a few inches to several feet, the top layer of the soil rich in plant and animal matter thaws each summer and refreezes during the winters. Called the Active Layer, this seasonally frozen layer packs organic matter which got buried in the snow a long time ago before it could be decomposed.
Recent observations have shown that the yearly phenomenon of seasonal thawing is being disrupted as the active layer is thawing for longer and getting deeper, due to Climate Change!
As permafrost thaws, microbes in the soil decompose the stored organic matter and release carbon dioxide when oxygen is present during decomposition. In the absence of oxygen, methane is released which is believed to be at least 80 times more potent on a decadal timescale than carbon dioxide. As a result of increasing temperatures in the Arctic, previously untapped carbon is now getting released to the atmosphere raising the concentration of greenhouse gases.
Furthermore, when the meltwater from the thawing permafrost makes its way to the surface, ponds of water are formed which are called thermokarst lakes, sometimes so big that they can be seen from space! The water collected in these lakes can heat up significantly in a short period of time and keep the land underneath warmer for longer which deepens the thaw. In some cases, an abrupt thaw from thermokarst lake formation could be several metres deep!
The release of greenhouse gases from the thawing permafrost will only lead to further warming which, in turn, will cause more thawing and trigger an irreversible self-reinforcing feedback loop that may cause runaway Climate Change.
The Tipping Point: Net Sink to Net Source
Historically, the Arctic region has been a carbon sink rather than a carbon source. The summer months in the Arctic are traditionally growing seasons as the warmer temperatures coupled with the atmospheric carbon act as a catalyst for the growth of plants and vegetation.
Although, in principle, a warmer Arctic would support more vegetation and in turn, more carbon dioxide will be captured from the atmosphere due to photosynthesis. The amount of carbon released from the thawing of the permafrost would far outweigh the amount captured by plants. In fact, this new growth is projected to offset only about 20 percent of the permafrost carbon release.
Climate scientists believe that if the current rise in global temperatures remains unabated, the Arctic could soon transition from a net carbon sink to a net source. Such an occurrence would be irreversible and a major climate tipping point.
It is due to this reason that prominent economists like Dr. Gail Whiteman, a Cambridge researcher and the Founder of the Arctic Basecamp at Davos, have called permafrost thawing as an ‘invisible time-bomb’ since permafrost happens to be the largest carbon reservoir in the world!
Tantamount to twice the carbon currently present in the atmosphere, a staggering 1700 billion tons of carbon is estimated to be locked-in in Permafrost! Truly, this is one Pandora’s box we do not want to open.
Evidence and Impacts
The Arctic has been warming at a rate that is at least twice as fast as the global average. In 2016, the average surface temperature in the Arctic was 3.5˚C warmer than at the start of the 20th century. That year, permafrost temperatures in the Arctic were the warmest ever recorded.
As a result, the circumpolar region has constantly been losing its snow cover year after year. A recent study based on observational trends, projects that every 1˚C increase in temperature would lead to thawing of approximately 1.5 million square miles of permafrost which is larger than the size of India.
Studies predict that if all the world’s permafrost ceases to exist, it could lead to an increase in global average temperatures by as much as 1.7°C by the year 2300. According to recent estimates, economic impact of such an event would be huge, thawing of this nature could lead to ~$60 trillion in damage. To put this in context, the size of the entire global economy in 2012 was about $70 trillion.
Ever since the Paris Agreement, the world is moving to put in place efforts and policies to limit the global warming trend since pre-industrial levels to well within 2˚C (aiming to eventually reach 1.5˚C) in order to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change. It is not hard to imagine that a 1.7˚C rise from a single source would have serious ramifications for the international effort to keep warming below 2˚C.
Single source carbon emissions of such enormous scale come at a significant cost not just to the global climate, but to Arctic infrastructure and human health as well.
Whole towns and cities are built on top of permafrost which was considered permanently frozen. But as the ground is softening, the infrastructure for an estimated 35 million people is literally falling apart! Alaska (USA) alone is staring at an estimated $5.5 billion in permafrost related damages by the end of this century.
Effects of permafrost thaw on houses in interior Alaska (2001, top left), roads in eastern Alaska (1982, top right), and the estimated costs (with and without climate change) of replacing public infrastructure in Alaska, assuming a mid-range emissions scenario (A1B, with some decrease from current emissions growth trends).
Unfortunately, our problems don’t end there.
Scientists believe that thawing of permafrost brings with it a heightened risk of potential diseases. Old forms of diseases which had once been eradicated have been found in the dead remains recovered from the permafrost zones. This threat became very real after an Anthrax outbreak occurred in 2016 when a reindeer carcass carrying the bacteria was discovered in Russia. We could potentially see future outbreaks from Zombie Pathogens of ancient diseases like Smallpox and Spanish Flu as well but the extent of the threat is not yet certain.
Furthermore, according to the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC), a non-profit international environmental advocacy group, based in the United States:
We have to understand that things in the Arctic are changing fast and what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic!
If countries meet the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement and get on a more sustainable course, permafrost should stay frozen. Enough alarm bells have been raised by climatologists. For instance, William Colgan, a Senior Researcher at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, in Copenhagen, believes that if we don't do anything the toxic wastes will likely begin to melt out of the permafrost, irreversibly, within 75 years. While we have not reached the tipping point yet, political apathy might soon bring the world to the brink of such a catastrophe.
Considering the first two feedback loops that we have covered in the Arctic Episodes series so far, it is clear that as the global thermometer rises, the Albedo reduction feedback and permafrost thawing could soon put climate change into high-gear. In the next part of the series, we talk about another crucial component of this cause-effect-cause cycle -- the melting of Greenland.
References and Further Reading:
1. Tarnocai, C., Canadell, J. G., Schuur, E. A. G., Kuhry, P., Mazhitova, G., and Zimov, S.; Soil organic carbon pools in the northern circumpolar permafrost region, Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 23 , 2009.
2. McGuire, A. D., Anderson, L. G., Christensen, T. R., Dallimore, S., Guo, L., Hayes, D. J., Heimann, M., Lorenson, T. D., Macdonald, R. W., and Roulet, N.; Sensitivity of the carbon cycle in the Arctic to climate change, Ecological Monographs, 2009.
3. MacDougall, A. H., Avis, C. A., and Weaver, A. J.; Significant contribution to climate warming from the permafrost carbon feedback, Nature Geoscience, 5, pp. 719–721, 2012.
4. Chadburn, S. E., Burke, E. J., Cox, P. M., Friedlingstein, R., Hugelius, G., and Westermann, S.; An observation-based constraint on permafrost loss as a function of global warming, Nature Climate Change, 7, pp. 340–344, 2017.
5. Anthony, K. W., Deimling, T. S. von, Nitze, T., Frolking, S., Emond, A., Daanen, R., Anthony, P., Lindgren, A., Jones, B., and Grosse, G.; 21st-century modeled permafrost carbon emissions accelerated by abrupt thaw beneath lakes, Nature Communications, 9, 2018.
6. Global Climate Report – Annual 2017. NOAA. Retrieved 18 January 2018.
7. US NOAA Arctic Report Card 2018.
8. Permafrost: Everything you need to know. NRDC.
9. Schuster, P. F., et. al.; Permafrost Stores a Globally Significant Amount of Mercury, Geophys. Res. Lett., 45, pp. 1463-1471, 2018.
10. Huge permafrost thaw can be limited by ambitious climate targets. University of Leeds.
11. As Earth warms, the diseases that may lie within permafrost become a bigger worry. Scientific American.
12. Coastal erosion in the Arctic intensifies global warming: Sea level rise in the past led to the release of greenhouse gases from permafrost.
13. Whiteman, G., Hope, C., and Wadhams, P.; Climate science: Vast costs of Arctic change, Nature, 499, 2013.
14. Cost of Arctic methane release could be 'size of global economy', experts warn.
15. James Hansen: Fossil fuel addiction could trigger runaway global warming. The Guardian.
16. Arctic permafrost may thaw faster than expected. National Geographic.
17. Thawing permafrost matters.
18. Arctic meltdown: We're already feeling the consequences of thawing permafrost. Discover Magazine.
In our changing climate, the Arctic is undergoing an incredible transformation that will have profound ripple effects far beyond the Arctic circle and in all of our lives. In this first part of our series called the Arctic Episodes, we discuss the state of disappearing Arctic sea ice and its implications.
The Arctic, located above the line of latitude about 66.5° North of the Equator, marks the northernmost region of our planet. With long frozen winters and short chilly summers, its climate can historically be categorized as variations of extreme cold. A large portion of it is covered by ocean water, most of which remains frozen almost all year round, better known as sea ice.
The sea ice is surrounded by snow and ice-clad landmasses including northern parts of Scandinavia, Russia, Canada, Greenland, and the U.S. state of Alaska. During winters, temperatures can drop below -45°C in some places and nights can last for weeks or even months. With average temperatures being less than 0°C even in summer months, this is one of the harshest environments to live on Earth.
All of that is changing, fast!
The Arctic is currently undergoing an incredible transformation, a fact which is oblivious to most people. A transformation that will have profound ripple effects far beyond the Arctic Circle and in all our lives. This, perhaps, is the most important story of our times.
It is now a well-established scientific fact that our climate is changing. Ever since the industrial revolution, human emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane are causing global temperatures to rise at an unprecedented rate. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Arctic.
The 2018 Arctic Report Card, issued by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) last month, unequivocally states that the Arctic is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the world.
There are multiple reasons for this dramatic rise in Arctic temperatures, known in the scientific community as “Arctic Amplification”. In this article, which is part one of our series called the Arctic Episodes, we discuss the first main cause for Arctic Amplification and its implications.
THE ALBEDO EFFECT
The Albedo Effect is just a fancy scientific term to describe the ability of a surface to reflect sunlight, also called solar reflectivity. White surfaces like ice and snow reflect around 80% of Sun's radiation back into space. On the other hand, dark surfaces like ocean water, land vegetation and dark building rooftops reflect less than 10% of solar radiation.
Of course, all of us have observed this phenomenon firsthand when we wear a black shirt versus white on a summer day. It gets unbearably hot in black after a couple of hours in the Sun. This is because dark surfaces have a low albedo (or reflectivity) and white surfaces have a high albedo (or reflectivity). In other words, low albedo surfaces absorb more solar radiation than it reflects.
As the Arctic is warming along with the entire planet, the sea ice is melting. When the sea ice melts away, the white surface is replaced by dark ocean water which greatly reduces the albedo of the surface. The darker ocean water absorbs a lot more heat from the Sun which causes further warming. This additional warming leads to further melting of sea ice and the whole system enters a self-reinforcing loop (a.k.a “positive feedback loop”) wherein the effects of initial warming lead to more warming and cause even larger effects and the cycle goes on.
So, as it turns out, the loss of Arctic sea ice is not only an effect of global warming it is in fact also a driver of global warming!
A study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences journal in 2014 estimated that the albedo reduction feedback due to retreating sea ice is contributing around 25% extra warming to the greenhouse effect from man-made CO2 emission. In other words, the albedo feedback is accelerating global warming as if we were adding 25% more greenhouse gases by burning fossil fuels than we are right now.
What is most worrisome about such self-reinforcing loops is that once initiated they can get out of control quickly as the effects are compounded. After that no additional force is required because the system drives itself. Experts believe this is exactly what is happening in the Arctic.
THE DISAPPEARING SEA ICE
The sea ice is in, what scientists are calling, the Arctic Death Spiral.
Since the 1970s the Arctic sea ice cover has retreated significantly. The summer minimum sea ice extent (which occurs in the month of September) has decreased by more than 40%. In 2018, the sea ice minimum was the sixth lowest extent since satellite measurements began in 1979. The 12 lowest extents in the satellite record have all been in the last 12 years!
While sea ice extent (or surface area) is a useful metric to assess the albedo effect, it does not capture the entire picture. Sea ice volume, which takes into account the thickness of the ice, is a better descriptor of the ice condition.
Typically, older multi-year ice which has been frozen for four or more years can be 4-5 meters thick and hence has more volume. Whereas one or two-year ice is much thinner and has less volume.
In the early 1980s, more than 25% of the ice was thick multi-year ice. Today, such ice is barely measurable. Almost all of the ice pack is now thin one or two-year ice.
Thinner ice is easier to break and more susceptible to storms and extreme heat events in the Arctic. This makes it harder for field scientists to set up their camps on the ice and make measurements. Ironically, it opens up the coastal Arctic seas for oil exploration because thin ice is easier to navigate with icebreaker ships.
THE BLUE OCEAN EVENT
At this point, the sea ice decline seems almost unstoppable unless we take dramatic action to stop all greenhouse gas emissions or use some type of solar geoengineering technique to counteract the albedo feedback. Soon enough, there will come a time when there will be nearly no sea ice left in the Arctic in the Summer or what the scientists are calling a Blue Ocean Event (BOE).
It is hard to predict when it will happen. Current estimates for a BOE range from as early as 2020, based on extrapolation of observational trends, to as late as the mid-century or second half of this century, based on global climate model projections. All approaches have their pros and cons which makes it hard to pick one estimate. Moreover, an extreme weather event like a powerful storm or a heatwave in the Arctic could cause severe damage to the thinning ice in a short period of time. Surprise elements like these are even harder to predict.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that it will happen. A BOE will mean that for the first time huge amounts of sunlight will not be reflected back into space and instead be absorbed by the Arctic ocean. Scientists believe that this would be a critical “tipping point” for climate change and could lead to a sudden increase in the global average temperature.
This change would essentially be irreversible. At first, it will be a few weeks of no sea ice in the Summer but gradually that time duration will increase to a month and then a couple of months. Eventually, there will be no sea ice in the Arctic all year long.
Clearly, Arctic sea ice is in terrible shape and the stakes are extremely high!
The albedo reduction feedback loop in the Arctic has already been triggered by the amount of global warming we have had so far. It will likely not be enough to just reduce our future carbon emissions if we want to stop it. We must give serious thought to more creative solutions like solar radiation management or carbon capture and sequestration (removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere and putting it deep underground) if we want to have a real chance of stopping Arctic Amplification.
The albedo reduction effect is not the only feedback loop that is responsible for accelerating warming at the Arctic and around the world. In the next two episodes, we will talk about how the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and Arctic permafrost are also a part of this vicious cycle of exacerbating climate change and its impacts.
Apart from accelerating global warming, the sea ice retreat has also been linked to extreme weather events all around the world. Latest research suggests that the recent bitter cold spells in North America, the multi-billion-dollar hurricanes in the US, the global heatwaves and wildfires were all made worse by climate change and particularly by the changes that are happening in the Arctic. In the fourth and final instalment of this series, we will take a deep dive into the connections between the Arctic and extreme weather events.
References and useful links:
Solar geoengineering is the act of deliberately altering Earth's climate to mitigate global warming. Scientists estimate that it will cost just ~$36 billion over a period of 15 years to cool the planet.
But, is it safe?
With every year that passes by the carbon and climate problem grows even bigger. With every new scientific publication the consensus gets even stronger that climate change is not only real and man-made but its impacts are already upon us. The urgent need for unprecedented action means that very soon humanity would have to do anything and everything possible to address this issue and avoid the worst case scenarios. Solar geoengineering, which is the act of deliberately altering the Earth's climate system to counter man-made global warming, particularly solar radiation management is often cited as the last ditch effort to mitigate climate change.
Since the industrial revolution humans have emitted enough carbon dioxide and methane (both extremely potent greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere to increase the global average temperature by about 1°C. It is increasing further at the rate of 0.2°C per decade. This change is alarming because the enormous carbon emissions and subsequent warming are disrupting the natural cycles of the planet that humans and other species rely on, most importantly, the water cycle.
We are experiencing extreme precipitation, extreme droughts, super-charged storms and unpredictable weather conditions, among other effects. All the carbon that is in the atmosphere, most of it goes into the oceans which makes the ocean more acidic, combined with rising temperatures it is severely damaging marine life. The situation will only get worse if we continue on this path unabated.
Naturally, scientists and innovators across the globe are scratching their heads to come up with possible solutions to this precarious situation. While a vast majority of experts believe that reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero should be our top priority, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this transition will be a long process with many hurdles along the way. Time is of the essence here.
We must come up with a 'Plan B' to deal with global warming.
One alternative approach that is proposed by many is solar radiation management (SRM). SRM methods work on the basic premise of reducing the total amount of solar radiation entering Earth's atmosphere by reflecting part of it back into space. Thereby, preventing warming by reducing the amount of radiation available for absorption by greenhouse gases in the first place.
Over the last decade, multiple potential techniques have been introduced by scientists to reflect incoming solar radiation. From placement of giant mirrors in space to injection of reflective aerosol particles into the stratosphere or brightening the marine clouds using small sea salt particles. Several studies have been published assessing the pros and cons of the different techniques in terms of technological, economic, societal and governance factors.
The leading approach among them is the injection of sulfate aerosols (tiny atmospheric particles) or their precursors at a height of ~20 km above the Earth's surface, into the lower stratosphere. These particles are known to reflect incoming solar radiation back into space and cool the planet. While there is no precedent of a large scale human experiment to actually prove this, there have been natural events which show that this is true.
For instance, in 1991, a giant volcano, Mount Pinatubo in the Phillipines, erupted, spewing out some 10 million tonnes of sulfur high into the air which was followed by a drop of ~0.6°C in global temperature for at least one year. Historically, it has been observed that major volcanic eruptions are followed by a dip in global temperatures, which has been attributed to the sulfur particles that are ejected into the atmosphere.
There are a couple of key aspects of SRM which make it a very attractive solution to mitigate climate change.
First and foremost, modeling studies show that the effect of SRM will be immediate, we will see the global temperatures drop as soon as we begin the program. Just like the climate response to the 1991 volcanic eruption was immediate.
Second, it is dirt-cheap (relatively speaking)! In almost all the studies so far, the estimated cost of solar geoengineering is only a small fraction of the costs associated with climate change impacts such as droughts, heatwaves, wildfires and super-storms.
Most recently, a study published in Environmental Research Letters  lays out a detailed 15 year plan for how we could use solar geoengineering in the future and how much it will cost. The total costs for this 15 year plan are estimated to be ~$36 billion. Where, ~$3.6 billion are the pre-deployment costs which include manufacturing costs of specially designed aircrafts that are capable of carrying millions of tonnes of sulfate aerosols and flying at ~20 km above the ground. Followed by ~$2 billion per year operational costs for running hundreds to thousands of flights which would loft increasing amounts of aerosols into the stratosphere each year, during the 15 year program.
These are peanuts compared to the costs of damages that would incur on the global economy if we take no action on climate change. 
While still in its early research stage, solar geoengineering appears to be a fast, cheap and technologically accessible solution to the greenhouse problem.
That begs the question, why is it not being used already?
Well, there is another side to the coin. Many experts fear that solar geoengineering, if implemented, will be another grand human experiment with mother nature (just like the burning of fossil fuels) and there could be unintended consequences. Some modeling studies show that SRM schemes deployed on a large scale could weaken the global water cycle.[5,6] This could lead to changes in regional rain- and snow-fall patterns around the world with consequences for freshwater availability and food production. Changing the stratospheric chemistry could also adversely impact the ozone layer which is essential for preventing harmful UV radiation from reaching the Earth's surface.[7,8]
Moreover, it is clear that solar geoengineering would at best be a 'quick fix' for climate change but not a real cure to the problem, which instead would be reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Once initiated, it must scale up and continue indefinitely to counteract the growing greenhouse effect. If it is halted for some reason, the aerosol particles would eventually be washed out from the atmosphere in a couple of years and global temperatures will rise rapidly. Also, it does not help in any way in the problems that are directly related to excess carbon in the atmosphere. Air pollution and ocean acidification, for example, will continue to get worse with rising carbon emissions.
Considering all the open scientific, political, and societal, questions and concerns regarding SRM, research must continue in this area to better understand and evaluate this option. If at all SRM is to be considered seriously, it should be seen as a complimentary solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and not a stand-alone holy grail. It can certainly be useful in that it can buy us time to make the transition from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy. With the future climate change predictions getting more dire each year, it is an all-hands-on-deck situation. In the end, we might have to explore any and all possible solutions to tackle the most pressing issue of our time.
Last month the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its findings in a landmark report on the impacts of climate change in a 1.5°C warmer world as opposed to 2°C warmer relative to pre-industrial times (before 1850). The report is an exercise to assess the goals agreed upon at the COP21 conference in Paris to keep the global average temperature rise this century well below 2°C. A key focus was to outline the efforts that would be required to accomplish this incredible feat and the associated economic costs. The report bluntly states that nothing less than a complete transition from fossil-fuels to clean renewable energy worldwide is needed to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to zero .
Having analysed more than 6,000 scientific studies, 91 scientists from across the globe concluded that climate change is already having significant and widespread impacts on all forms of life on Earth. The planet has already warmed about 1°C since pre-industrial levels and is gaining about 0.2°C every decade . There is enough scientific evidence now to show that rising temperatures are causing an increase in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods and extreme weather events around the world.
Such climate-related disasters incur huge costs on international economies every year.
In 2017 alone, US witnessed three major hurricanes - Harvey, Maria and Irma which cost the tax payers a whopping US$280 billion [2,3]. Same year Super Typhoon Hato that struck China and Hong Kong coasts raked up an estimated US $6.4 Billion in economic losses [4,5,6]. The recent unprecedented flooding in Kerala caused extensive damage to crops and infrastructure to the tune of US$4 billion. While these numbers seem unfathomable, the IPCC report projects that by 2100 the total cost will be nearly $54 trillion dollars in global damages in the 1.5°C scenario and $69 trillion in the 2°C scenario .
The IPCC report is especially significant as for the first time ever a UN report put a price tag on climate change. These calculations are not limited to the cost of damages done to the environment and the various ecosystems but also include costs of the widespread adoption of new and disruptive technologies needed at a rate the world has never seen before. Entire sectors of the global economy like transportation, distribution and heating will have to transition off of fossil fuels and onto renewable or other zero-emission sources of energy. There is a need for transformational change in all sectors of our economies to embrace policy changes in our effort to solve the carbon and climate problem.
This is easier said than done. In order to prevent 2°C of warming, greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050 . IPCC also estimates that by 2050 the use of coal as an electricity source would have to drop from nearly 40 percent today to between 1 and 7 percent. This implies that renewable energy such as wind and solar, which make up about 20 percent of the global electricity mix today, would have to increase to as much as 67 percent.
Laszlo Varro, the chief economist with the International Energy Agency rightly summarized the report ina LinkedIn post  by saying “The IPCC was very clear that the impacts of high warming is the equivalent of a national emergency but at a planetary scale.” Varro appraised the challenge in front of us; global investments in wind and solar, which currently total approximately $250 billion per year, would need to be increased several folds to meet the 1.5°C target. "The energy that you get from this $250 billion investment buys you the equivalent of 1 percent of global electric demand," Varro said. "But global electricity demand is growing at 2 percent per year, so you don't even catch the growth of global electricity consumption let alone rapid decarbonizing."
He goes on to stress in an interview to Inside Climate News  that only through sustained investment on a global scale can we begin to roll back some of the anthropogenic damage done to our planet. To keep global warming in check, the world will have to invest an average of around $3 trillion a year over the next three decades. The IPCC summarizes that the transformation will require a global investment in clean energy and infrastructure to the tune of $1.6 trillion to $3.8 trillion a year (in 2010 U.S. dollars), with an average of about $3 trillion to $3.5 trillion a year from 2016 to 2050 . Even though this might seem like a lot to ask, the authors of the report are still optimistic because this $3 trillion yearly investment compares to an estimated $2.4 trillion a year that would otherwise be invested in energy systems as it is.
Many researchers agree that the cheapest ways to reduce carbon emissions and raise money in the interim are through the implementation of a carbon tax and the ‘cap and trade’ approach. It is believed that until cleaner energy alternatives become cheaper, some form of a carbon tax should become the de-facto way of governments to reduce carbon emissions. The report states “A price on carbon is central to prompt mitigation”. It estimates that to be effective, such a price would have to range from $135 to $5,500 per ton of carbon dioxide pollution in 2030, and from $690 to $27,000 per ton by 2100 .
The process of translating the Paris Agreement into national agendas has already started as the 195 member states agree that with a modest increase in our electricity budgets we can ensure that the world is powered by sustainable energy considering the cost of no action grossly expedites global catastrophe. For instance, countries like Canada have already started levying a revenue-neutral tax by passing the “Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act” . The federal carbon pollution price will start low at $20 per ton in 2019, rising at $10 per ton per year until reaching $50 per ton in 2022. If such a trend continues, Canada will be well on its way to be in the $135 to $5,500 bracket by 2030.
Such a move seems almost impossible in the world’s largest economy and second-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China, the United States, considering the current political climate. Lawmakers around the world, including in China, the European Union and California, have started enacting carbon pricing programs. These efforts are the building blocks of the international effort and together they can bring into effect the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent the worst impacts of climate change.
While governments may be leading the charge in our fight for a cleaner and cooler Earth, big corporations seem to have joined the fray when faced with the rising costs of fossil fuel emissions and climate change. A research and sustainability advocacy group Ceres has been working with companies and large investors for years to help them understand both the risks to their portfolios from high-carbon sources and the opportunities of investing in cleaner infrastructure as renewable energy prices fall. Ceres has been partnering with corporate giants like Google and Apple who have instituted organizational change by purchasing enough renewable energy to cover 100 percent of their power needs recognizing the huge impacts on their future supply lines.
It is often a gripe with people who refuse to ‘believe’ the science behind climate change because the predictions seldom present a redeemable future and are deemed extremely pessimistic. In truth, the scientific community continues to remain optimistic and is offering us the tools for the planet’s survival, the only thing that stands in our way, however, is political will. Dr Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at Duke University, put the political view in perspective when he stated “For governments, the idea of overshooting the target but then coming back to it is attractive because then they don’t have to make such rapid changes. But, it has a lot of disadvantages. It's not necessarily asking for some new pot of money to be magically created, but its a redirection from investment in fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables".
Ceres has been advocating for some time now that achieving what they call the first clean trillion entails an additional $1 trillion in clean energy investment per year through 2050 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change is imminently feasible. Sue Reid, Ceres’ vice president summed it up nicely when he stated that "We are in an all-hands-on-deck situation that requires transformational change in the public and private sectors, the likes of which the world has never seen. Fortunately, we already have at hand a range of tools that are needed—from clean energy technologies to effective policy models—to get us there.” The only question is whether our elected representatives will acknowledge what climate scientists have been saying for decades now - the clock ticks ever closer to midnight.
1. IPCC, 2018: Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H. O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J. B. R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M. I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, T. Waterfield (eds.)]. In Press.
2. Costliest U.S. tropical cyclones tables update (PDF) (Report). United States National Hurricane Center. January 12, 2018. Archived (PDF) from the original on January 26, 2018. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
3. Blake, Eric S; Zelinsky, David A (January 23, 2018). Tropical Cyclone Report: Hurricane Harvey: August 17 – September 1, 2017 (PDF) (Report). National Hurricane Center. Retrieved January 27, 2018.
4. "Member Report: China" (PDF). CMA. China Meterelogical Agency. Retrieved 26 October 2017.
5. Nikki Sun (23 August 2017). "Typhoon Hato could cause HK$8 billion in losses after No 10 signal storm brought Hong Kong to standstill". South China Morning Post.
6. "Typhoon Hato losses around MOP12.55 billion". Macau News Agency. February 22, 2018. Retrieved September 7, 2018.
8. Inside Climate News Article "https://insideclimatenews.org/news/11102018/ipcc-clean-energy-transformation-cost-trillion-climate-change-global-warming-renewable-coal-fossil-fuels". Published October 11, 2018.
9. Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act (S.C. 2018, c. 12, s. 186) https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/G-11.55/
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