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Arctic thaw means humans must act

Prodded into it by man, Mother Nature has begun turning up the heat as carbon trapped in more than 18 million acres of permafrost escapes the thawing tundra. The release will include emissions of methane that could warm the planet too fast for many of its inhabitants to adapt. Polar bears drowning for want of ice may just be the start.

Despite the threat, it's been a disappointing year for progress in the battle to slow the pace of climate change. Yet again there's no accord between the major pollution nations, China, the United States and India, on a timetable to reduce carbon emissions. In Congress, the Republican assault on laws and regulations that limit damage to the environment continues. But there are a few signs of hope, chief among them the Obama administration's success in winning auto industry agreement to nearly double the fuel efficiency of cars, from a fleet average of 27.5 mpg to 54.5 mpg by 2025. Trucks and SUVs will become nearly as efficient.

While this change will only bring America's auto fleet roughly in line with where European nations are now, the economic and environmental impact of the tougher standards will be dramatic. They will mean a 40 to 50 percent reduction in the amount of carbon emitted by vehicles, a four-billion barrel reduction in oil imports and trillions of dollars in savings for consumers. Achieving the new standards means the auto industry will have to invest in new technology. Ceres, a nonprofit coalition of investors and environmental organizations, estimates that the new standards will lead to 43,000 new jobs in the auto sector and some 484,000 jobs overall.

The Obama administration also managed to overcome Republican opposition and impose tougher rules to govern sulfur dioxide emissions, a leading cause of acid rain that, while not the problem they were two decades ago, are still unhealthily high. The administration also oversaw the imposition of tougher rules governing mercury emissions from power plants, an issue that New Hampshire has wrestled with for decades. In New Hampshire, the impact of the new rules will depend on whether they are imposed overall or on a plant-by-plant basis, as PSNH, which operates three coal-burning plans in the state, contends.

The utility argues that the new, $422 million mercury scrubber at Bow's Merrimack Station means that the overall emissions from its three plants are so low that meeting the federal standards will require only modest changes at its other two plants. Maybe. But since some portion of every power plant's mercury emissions are deposited locally, it seems logical to impose the rules on a plant-by-plant basis.

The new requirements, most importantly the increased fuel efficiency standards, will be a big improvement. Will they be enough to offset increased carbon emissions not just from the developing world but also from a thawing Arctic? Not hardly. Scientists writing in the journal Nature recently reported that the amount of carbon likely to be released from the permafrost is from 1.7 to 5.2 times greater than previously thought. It will also be released far faster than predicted, further exacerbating global warming.

Their findings, scientists in the Permafrost Carbon Network said, mean that the need to reduce carbon emissions from human activity is even more urgent. That means, laudable as they are, tougher mileage standards should only be the start of an all-out war on the emissions driving climate change.

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