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Emissions of greenhouse gases and other climate forcing pollutants are pushing the Arctic to a point of no return, even if the world manages to meet global climate commitments. Impacts from a warmer arctic, like rapidly thawing permafrost, could accelerate climate change further and derail efforts to meet the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal of limiting the rise in global temperature to 2°C, warns a new UN Environment report: Global Linkages - A graphic look at the changing Arctic.
However, the rate of warming in the Arctic could be cut by up to two-thirds by 2050 by immediately implementing global measures to reduce short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). According to the report there is an urgent need for global action to reduce SLCPs like methane, tropospheric ozone, black carbon, and hydrolfluorocarbons (HFCs), and that this effort must be a part of any long-term efforts to transition to lower carbon economies.
Helena Molin Valdés, Head of the UN Environment hosted Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat – the only global group working to reduce short-lived climate pollutants – said the report reinforces the fact that speed is an important factor to protect vulnerable ecosystems and people like those in the Arctic.
“The science shows that we must do everything we can now to reduce these powerful climate and air pollutants if we are to stabilize the climate and prevent runaway climate impacts,” Ms. Molin Valdés said. “The good news is that because short-lived climate pollutants are only in our atmosphere for a relatively short period of time, action to reduce them will produce quick results and provide additional benefits to health and ecosystems. We can slow this climate emergency if we act now.”
Current research and models indicate with high confidence that methane, tropospheric ozone and black carbon all play a significant role in Arctic climate change. Their influence is twofold: first, direct warming in the Arctic from local emissions and the airborne transport of SLCPs to the Arctic; and, second, an overall increase in global temperatures, which indirectly contributes to warming in the Arctic.
Global Linkages outlines the regional and local implications of rapidly rising temperatures in the Arctic including, disruptions to ocean circulation, seal levels and climate and weather patterns.
“What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic,” said Joyce Msuya, UN Environment’s Acting Executive Director. “We have the science; now more urgent climate action is needed to steer away from tipping points that could be even worse for our planet than we first thought.”
Arctic societies now must respond to climate change through suitable adaptation actions. Arctic Indigenous Peoples already face increased food insecurity. By 2050, four million people, and around 70% of today’s Arctic infrastructure, will be threatened by thawing permafrost, the report notes.
“The urgency to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement is clearly manifested in the Arctic, because it is one of the most vulnerable and rapidly changing regions in the world,” said the Finnish Minister of the Environment, Energy and Housing, Kimmo Tiilikainen. “We need to make substantial near-term cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, black carbon and other so-called short-lived climate pollutants all over the world.”
Even if the Paris Agreement is met, Arctic permafrost is expected to shrink 45% compared to today. Globally, these frozen soils hold an estimated 1,672 billion metric tonnes of carbon. Increased thawing is expected to contribute significantly to carbon dioxide and methane emissions. The resulting warming will in turn lead to more thawing – an effect known as ‘positive feedback’. This accelerated climate change could even throw the Paris Agreement’s 2°C goal off track, the report underlines.
“In the battle to save the Arctic, defeat can be summed up in two words: ‘too late,’” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.
“If we lose the Arctic, we release an unholy cascade of other self-reinforcing feedbacks that may become unstoppable, leading to climate chaos. No market solutions will save the Arctic, only fast mandatory mitigation organized by G20 countries on an emergency basis to cut short-lived climate pollutants along with carbon dioxide,” he added.
SLCPs are mostly produced outside the Arctic but are transported to the region through the atmosphere.
Methane persists for around nine years, is about 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and its effect on increased temperatures in the Arctic region is twice the global average.
Methane is also a key component in the formation of tropospheric ozone, which is not emitted directly but formed through a reaction involving precursor gases and sunlight. Tropospheric ozone is likely to have contributed to direct warming in the Arctic.
Black carbon from the burning of fossil and biogenic fuels only remains airborne for short periods, which means emission sources close to the Arctic have the greatest potential impact. When deposited on snow and ice black carbon can lower the albedo, the amount of energy reflected back into space, and increase the absorption of sunlight, leading to accelerated melting. This in turn uncovers darker land and water surfaces that are more heat absorbent and thus contributes to a cycle of continued melting.
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