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Emissions from Melting Permafrost Could Cost $43 Trillion

Words by Leon Kaye

While rain forests have long scored attention for their role in trapping carbon, discussions concerning the Arctic have centered on whether or not, or how much, we are going to allow companies to drill for oil far up north.

Now, scientists are suggesting the Arctic should have renewed focus for another reason: Climate change, accelerated by the melting of permafrost and resulting greenhouse gas emissions, could cost the global economy, in the long run, as much as $43 trillion.

This analysis was published in the journal Nature Climate Change by a joint group of scientists from the University of Colorado and the University of Cambridge. In a letter, the study's lead authors, Chris Hope and Kevin Schaefer, suggest that the Arctic region is warming at approximately twice the rate of the global average.

Why is this a potential threat? Hope and Schaefer’s team posit that the melting of permafrost, in addition to the loss of ice sheets in Greenland and the far northern islands of Canada, will lead to the release of countless billions of tons of not only carbon dioxide, but also far more damaging methane gas. The release of additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will cause a bevy of problems: Damage and loss to real estate in coastal areas, the loss of crops due to higher temperatures, decrease in electricity from hydropower, and increased use of air conditioning are just a few examples of the hits to the global economy. Those losses would far outweigh any economic benefits, such as the opening of Arctic shipping routes, investment in low-carbon transportation or economic development in the world’s far northern regions.

Hope, a professor of business, and Schaefer, a research scientist specializing in permafrost carbon, arrived at their financial figure by using data from the PAGE09 (Policy Analysis for the Greenhouse Effect) assessment model. If current weather patterns continue, the total cost of climate change through the year 2200, in their estimation, could increase to $369 trillion — a 13 percent increase from what is generally agreed to be the long-term cost of climate change. Their study, however, is not completely dystopian. They suggest that if aggressive climate change strategies are implemented worldwide, that figure could shrink by $37 trillion.

This analysis on the potential impact of permafrost loss will grab the attention of a wide array of industries. Energy companies determined to drill in the Arctic would have to balance those gains versus the specter of an accelerated demand for fuel-efficient vehicles; insurance companies would need to assess how they insure buildings and homes in coastal areas; food companies may have to decide whether regions from which they have long sourced ingredients will still be relevant for their supply chains. If proponents of a global deal at the COP21 talks in Paris need more ammunition to make their case that climate is a matter to be taken seriously, this study will definitely boost their arguments over the next few months.

Image credit: Flickr/Mike Beauregard

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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