guest post by Steve Easterbrook
(3) The warming is largely irreversible
The summary for policymakers says:
A large fraction of anthropogenic climate change resulting from CO2 emissions is irreversible on a multi-century to millennial time scale, except in the case of a large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period. Surface temperatures will remain approximately constant at elevated levels for many centuries after a complete cessation of net anthropogenic CO2 emissions.
The conclusions about irreversibility of climate change are greatly strengthened from the previous assessment report, as recent research has explored this in much more detail. The problem is that a significant fraction of our greenhouse gas emissions stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years, so even if we stop emitting them altogether, they hang around, contributing to more warming. In simple terms, whatever peak temperature we reach, we’re stuck at for millennia, unless we can figure out a way to artificially remove massive amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.
The graph is the result of an experiment that runs (simplified) models for a thousand years into the future. The major climate models are generally too computational expensive to be run for such a long simulation, so these experiments use simpler models, so-called EMICS (Earth system Models of Intermediate Complexity).
The four curves in this figure correspond to four “Representative Concentration Pathways”, which map out four ways in which the composition of the atmosphere is likely to change in the future. These four RCPs were picked to capture four possible futures: two in which there is little to no coordinated action on reducing global emissions (worst case—RCP8.5 and best case—RCP6) and two on which there is serious global action on climate change (worst case—RCP4.5 and best case—RCP 2.6). A simple way to think about them is as follows. RCP8.5 represents ‘business as usual’—strong economic development for the rest of this century, driven primarily by dependence on fossil fuels. RCP6 represents a world with no global coordinated climate policy, but where lots of localized clean energy initiatives do manage to stabilize emissions by the latter half of the century. RCP4.5 represents a world that implements strong limits on fossil fuel emissions, such that greenhouse gas emissions peak by mid-century and then start to fall. RCP2.6 is a world in which emissions peak in the next few years, and then fall dramatically, so that the world becomes carbon neutral by about mid-century.
Note that in RCP2.6 the temperature does fall, after reaching a peak just below 2°C of warming over pre-industrial levels. That’s because RCP2.6 is a scenario in which concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere start to fall before the end of the century. This is only possible if we reduce global emissions so fast that we achieve carbon neutrality soon after mid-century, and then go carbon negative. By carbon negative, I mean that globally, each year, we remove more CO2 from the atmosphere than we add. Whether this is possible is an interesting question. But even if it is, the model results show there is no time within the next thousand years when it is anywhere near as cool as it is today.
You can download all of Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis here. Click below to read any part of this series:
- The warming is unequivocal.
- Humans caused the majority of it.
- The warming is largely irreversible.
- Most of the heat is going into the oceans.
- Current rates of ocean acidification are unprecedented.
- We have to choose which future we want very soon.
- To stay below 2°C of warming, the world must become carbon negative.
- To stay below 2°C of warming, most fossil fuels must stay buried in the ground.
- Observations: Atmosphere and Surface
- Observations: Ocean
- Observations: Cryosphere
- Information from Paleoclimate Archives
- Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles
- Clouds and Aerosols
- Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing
- Evaluation of Climate Models
- Detection and Attribution of Climate Change: from Global to Regional
- Near-term Climate Change: Projections and Predictability
- Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility
- Sea Level Change
- Climate Phenomena and their Relevance for Future Regional Climate Change
- Annex I: Atlas of Global and Regional Climate Projections
- Annex II: Climate System Scenario Tables
- Annex III: Glossary
- Annex IV: Acronyms
- Annex V: Contributors to the WGI Fifth Assessment Report
- Annex VI: Expert Reviewers of the WGI Fifth Assessment Report