Thawing permafrost threat raised in Doha talks

UN climate meeting in Qatar warned that thaw may further accelerate global warming when world is struggling to reign in greenhouse gases.

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DOHA // Thawing permafrost covering almost a quarter of the northern hemisphere could "significantly amplify global warming" at a time when the world is already struggling to reign in rising greenhouse gases, a United Nations agency said yesterday.

The warning came as UN climate negotiations entered a second day, with the focus on the Kyoto Protocol - a legally-binding emissions cap that expires this year and remains the most significant international achievement in the fight against global warming. Countries are hoping to negotiate an extension to the pact that runs until at least 2020.

The UN Environment Programme (Unep) said the hazards of carbon dioxide and methane emissions from warming permafrost have, until now, not been factored into climate models. It called for a special UN climate panel to assess the warming and for the creation of "national monitoring networks and adaptation plans" to better understand the threat.

In the past, land with permafrost experienced thawing on the surface during summertime, but now scientists are witnessing thaws that reach up to 3 metres deep due to warmer temperatures. The softened earth releases gases from decaying plants that have been stuck below frozen ground for millennia.

"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," said Achim Steiner, the Unep executive director.

At the climate talks in Doha, negotiations over Kyoto started yesterday. Many wealthy countries such as Japan, Russia and Canada have refused to endorse the extension, and talks are expected to be heated. The United States was the lone industrialised country not to join the original pact.

In its current form, a pact that once incorporated all industrialised countries except the US would now only include the European Union, Australia and several smaller countries that together account for less than 15 per cent of global emissions.

"We want to send a very clear message. We will not accept a second commitment period that is not worth the paper that it's written on," Asad Rehman of the Climate Justice Now! network told delegates.