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Methane is the Tipping Point

Permafrost is thawing all over the planet, and this releases the powerful greenhouse gas methane. Permafrost covers nearly a quarter of the northern hemisphere and may contain as much as 1,700 gigatons of carbon, which is twice the amount that is currently in the atmosphere. As it thaws, it could push global warming past one of the key "tipping points" that scientists believe could lead to runaway climate change.

Most of the permafrost formed during or since the last ice age and covers parts of northern Siberia and Canada. Permafrost consists of a thick active layer of ice, which thaws each summer and refreezes each winter, with permanently frozen soil beneath it. Whole cities are built on it.

In the November 27th edition of the Guardian, Fiona Harvey quotes Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Program (UNEP) as saying, "Permafrost is one of the keys to the planet's future because it contains large stores of frozen organic matter that, if thawed and released into the atmosphere, would amplify current global warming and propel us to a warmer world. Its potential impact on the climate, ecosystems and infrastructure has been neglected for too long."

Governments are arguing over the future of the Kyoto protocol, since its current provisions and targets expire soon. Japan was once a strong defender of the protocol, because it was negotiated there, but the country has now abandoned it, probably because their neighbor China, where it is not followed, has taken a competitive advantage because it doesn't have to reduce its emissions.

Harvey quotes Japanese negotiator Masahiko Horie as saying, "Only developed countries are legally bound by the Kyoto protocol and their emissions are only 26% [of global emissions]. If we continue the same, only one quarter of the world is legally bound and three quarters of countries are not bound at all."

She quotes Brazilian negotiator Andre Correa do Lago as saying,"If rich countries which have the financial means, have technology, have a stable population, already have a large middle class, think they cannot reduce [emissions] and work to fight climate change, how can they ever think that developing countries can do it? That is why the Kyoto protocol has to be kept alive. If we take it out, we have what people call the Wild West. You are not going get the [emissions] reductions necessary."

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