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Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

New climate risk classification for potential ‘existential’ threats; with business as usual must extract/sequester 1000 Gt CO2 before 2100

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September 14, 2017  read full ScienceDaily article here

A new study evaluating models of future climate scenarios has led to the creation of the new risk categories ‘catastrophic’ and ‘unknown’ to characterize the range of threats posed by rapid global warming. Researchers propose that unknown risks imply existential threats to the survival of humanity. These categories describe two low-probability but statistically significant scenarios that could play out by century’s end, in [the] new study…

The risk assessment stems from the objective stated in the 2015 Paris Agreement regarding climate change that society keep average global temperatures “well below” a 2°C (3.6°F) increase from what they were before the Industrial Revolution.

Even if that objective is met, a global temperature increase of 1.5°C (2.7°F) is still categorized as “dangerous,” meaning it could create substantial damage to human and natural systems. A temperature increase greater than 3°C (5.4°F) could lead to what the researchers term “catastrophic” effects, and an increase greater than 5°C (9°F) could lead to “unknown” consequences which they describe as beyond catastrophic including potentially existential threats. The specter of existential threats is raised to reflect the grave risks to human health and species extinction from warming beyond 5° C, which has not been experienced for at least the past 20 million years

…”When we say five percent-probability high-impact event, people may dismiss it as small but it is equivalent to a one-in-20 chance the plane you are about to board will crash,” said Ramanathan. “We would never get on that plane with a one-in-20 chance of it coming down but we are willing to send our children and grandchildren on that plane.”…

….Aggressive measures to curtail the use of fossil fuels and emissions of so-called short-lived climate pollutants such as soot, methane and HFCs would need to be accompanied by active efforts to extract CO2 from the air and sequester it before it can be emitted. It would take all three efforts to meet the Paris Agreement goal to which countries agreed at a landmark United Nations climate conference in Nov 2015.

…Xu and Ramanathan point out that the goal is attainable. Global CO2 emissions had grown at a rate of 2.9 percent per year between 2000 and 2011, but had slowed to a near-zero growth rate by 2015. They credited drops in CO2 emissions from the United States and China as the primary drivers of the trend. Increases in production of renewable energy, especially wind and solar power, have also bent the curve of emissions trends downward. Other studies have estimated that there was by 2015 enough renewable energy capacity to meet nearly 24 percent of global electricity demand.

most of the technologies needed to drastically curb emissions of short-lived climate pollutants already exist and are in use in much of the developed world. They range from cleaner diesel engines to methane-capture infrastructure.

“While these are encouraging signs, aggressive policies will still be required to achieve carbon neutrality and climate stability,” the authors wrote.

Yangyang Xu and Veerabhadran Ramanathan. Well below 2 °C: Mitigation strategies for avoiding dangerous to catastrophic climate changes. PNAS. September 14, 2017 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1618481114


The historic Paris Agreement calls for limiting global temperature rise to “well below 2 °C.” Because of uncertainties in emission scenarios, climate, and carbon cycle feedback, we interpret the Paris Agreement in terms of three climate risk categories and bring in considerations of low-probability (5%) high-impact (LPHI) warming in addition to the central (∼50% probability) value. The current risk category of dangerous warming is extended to more categories, which are defined by us here as follows: >1.5 °C as dangerous; >3 °C as catastrophic; and >5 °C as unknown, implying beyond catastrophic, including existential threats. With unchecked emissions, the central warming can reach the dangerous level within three decades, with the LPHI warming becoming catastrophic by 2050. We outline a three-lever strategy to limit the central warming below the dangerous level and the LPHI below the catastrophic level, both in the near term (<2050) and in the long term (2100): the carbon neutral (CN) lever to achieve zero net emissions of CO2, the super pollutant (SP) lever to mitigate short-lived climate pollutants, and the carbon extraction and sequestration (CES) lever to thin the atmospheric CO2 blanket. Pulling on both CN and SP levers and bending the emissions curve by 2020 can keep the central warming below dangerous levels. To limit the LPHI warming below dangerous levels, the CES lever must be pulled as well to extract as much as 1 trillion tons of CO2 before 2100 to both limit the preindustrial to 2100 cumulative net CO2 emissions to 2.2 trillion tons and bend the warming curve to a cooling trend.

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