The VICE Channels

    The Methane Released from the Melting Arctic Could Have a $60 Trillion Price Tag

    Written by

    Mat McDermott


    Image via NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Flickr


    Lest you still think that fighting climate change and quickly developing a low-carbon economy will cost too much, check this out: A new study from Cambridge University's Judge Business School finds the cost of increased methane emissions resulting from sea ice melting in the Arctic and permafrost melting could be as great as the entire global economy in 2012—that's $60 trillion. 


    And that's just taking into account one area of the Arctic, the East Siberian Sea. The financial cost of increased methane emissions across the Arctic as a whole will be "much higher," the report says.


    The study, published in Nature, finds that whether released incrementally over the coming decades, or in one big "burp" or pulse, the methane released from this area of the Arctic could total 50 gigatons. 


    If the methane is released in one quick, large pulse, the world could cross the critical threshold of 2°C warmer than pre-industrial levels 15 to 35 years earlier than previously expected. In a business-as-usual emissions scenario we'd hit the threshold by 2035; with lower emissions it could stretch to 2040. 


    Framed another way, the $60 trillion figure represents just 15 percent of the expected total financial cost of climate change, $400 trillion. If we reduce emissions, the financial cost of climate change could drop to "just" $82 trillion. However, adding in the cost of the extra methane emissions increases that figure by 45 percent. 


    As with climate change impact in general, the report reminds us:

    Much of the cost will be borne by developing countries, which will face extreme weather, poorer health, and lower agricultural production as Arctic warming affects climate. All nations will be affected, not just those in the far north, and all should be concerned about changes occurring in this region.

    More concretely, the study finds that 80 percent of the financial cost of these Arctic methane emissions would fall on nations in Africa, Asia, and South America. 


    A dramatic example of this warming came to light yesterday, when webcams in the North Pole showed the immediate vicinity submerged in a meltwater lake, making the Pole look more like a placid lake than an icy wilderness. It's still unclear whether this year will surpass the record sea ice loss witnessed in 2012. So far the melting in the region is tracking below last year, though the month of July has been between 1-3° C warmer than usual—in line with the above average warming the Arctic has been experiencing more broadly.