DOHA, Qatar -- 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 rein in rising greenhouse gases, a U.N. report said on Tuesday.
The warning comes as United Nations climate negotiations enter 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 U.N. said the potential hazards of carbon dioxide and methane emissions from warming permafrost has until now not been factored into climate models. It is calling for a special U.N. climate panel to assess the warming and for the creation of "national monitoring networks and adaptation plans" to help 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 10 feet 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 UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in a statement.
At the climate talks in Doha, Qatar, negotiations over Kyoto started on Tuesday. Many rich 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 industrialized country not to join the original pact because it did not include other big greenhouse gas emitters like China.
In its current form, a pact that once incorporated all industrialized countries except the United States would now only include the European Union, Australia and several smaller countries which together account for less than 15 percent 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. "We will not collude in a lie if that locks us into eight years of inaction and that condemns people and planet to a climate catastrophe."
The Japanese delegation defended its decision not to sign onto a Kyoto extension, insisting it would be better to focus on coming to an agreement by 2015 that would require all countries to do their part to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), compared to preindustrial times.
"As we have been explaining, only developed countries are legally bound by the Kyoto Protocol and their emissions are only 26 percent," said Masahiko Horie, speaking for the Japanese delegation.
"If we continue the same, only one quarter of the world is legally bound and three quarters of countries are not bound at all," he said. "Japan will not be participating in a second commitment period because, what is important, is for the world is to formulate a new framework which is fair and effective and which all parties will join."
The position of Japan and other developed countries has the potential to reignite the battles between rich and poor nations that have doomed past efforts to reach a deal. So far that hasn't happened, but countries like Brazil are warning that it will be difficult for poor nations to do their part if they continue watching industrialized nations shy away from legally-binding pacts like Kyoto.
"This is a very serious thing," said Andre Correa do Lago, who heads the Brazil delegation and is the director general for Environment and Special Affairs in the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
"If rich countries which have the financial means, have technology, have a stable population, already have a large middle class, if these countries think they cannot reduce and work to fight climate change, how can they ever think that developing countries can do it," do Lago said. "That is why the Kyoto Protocol has to be kept alive. It's the bar. If we take it out, we have what people call the Wild West. Everybody will do what they want to do. With everyone doing what they want to do, you are not going get the reductions necessary.