Scripps Researchers Outline Strategy to Limit Global Warming
Fulfilling Copenhagen Accord will require variety of efforts ranging from ‘Herculean’ to the readily actionable, scientists say
San Diego, May 4, 2010 -- Major greenhouse gas-emitting countries agreed in December climate talks held in Copenhagen that substantial action is required to limit the increase of global average temperature to less than 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F). In a paper appearing May 3 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Yangyang Xu, climate researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, have identified a three-fold path by which those countries can avoid reaching the warming threshold, a point beyond which many scientists believe climate change will present unmanageable negative consequences for society.
Using a synthesis of National Science Foundation-funded research performed over the last 20 years, Ramanathan and Xu describe three steps that must be taken simultaneously to avoid the threshold, stressing that carbon dioxide control alone is not sufficient.
The integrated plan requiring simultaneous pursuit of three avenues: (i) stabilizing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, (ii) fashioning warming-neutral pollution laws that will balance the removal of aerosols that have an atmospheric cooling effect with the removal of warming agents such as soot and ozone, (iii) achieving reductions in methane, hydrofluorocarbons and other greenhouse gases that remain in the atmosphere for short periods of time. The authors write that aggressive simultaneous pursuit of these strategies could reduce the probability of reaching the temperature threshold to less than 10 percent before the year 2050.
“By taking a comprehensive look at human induced climate change, this paper clearly separates the global actions which must be undertaken simultaneously — and how quickly these actions must be taken,” said Larry Smarr, founding Director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) and a collaborator with Ramanathan on CO2 reduction strategies. “This paper should be required reading for all policy makers.”
The 2-degree C global temperature increase limit translates to a radiant energy increase of 2.5 watts per square meter. Ramanathan and Xu note that even if greenhouse gas emissions stop increasing in the next five years, human activities will probably create almost double that much radiant energy, which is compensated partially by the masking effect of certain kinds of aerosols that are produced in large part by pollution. Tiny particles of sulfates and other pollutants serve to cool the atmosphere by reflecting sunlight rather than absorbing it, directing heat away from the earth’s surface. Therefore, the authors argue, pollution control measures must take into account and counterbalance the warming that will happen when certain types of pollutants are removed from the skies.
Supporters of the so-called Copenhagen Accord agreed that the 2-degree C threshold must not be crossed, but the United Nations-sponsored conference did not produce hoped-for binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Scientists have suggested that exceeding that temperature threshold would trigger irreversible phenomena such as widespread release of methane from melting permafrost and large-scale glacial melt, both of which scenarios would exacerbate climate change-related problems such as sea-level rise and acceleration of global warming.
Avoiding the threshold requires holding carbon dioxide levels to less than 441 parts per million, according to the authors, only slightly higher than today’s value of 389ppm. This equates to a 50-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and an 80-percent reduction by 2100. Ramanathan and Xu acknowledge that such drastic reduction will require a “portfolio of actions in the energy, industrial, agricultural, and forestry sections.” Some of these actions will require development of new technologies.
“A massive decarbonization of the energy sector is necessary to accomplish this Herculean task,” the authors write.
But the strategies not focused on CO2 reduction can largely take advantage of existing technologies and more aggressive enforcement of existing regulations. The authors also point out that the world has already succeeded before in removing dangerous warming agents. The 1987 Montreal Protocol regulated the use of chlorofluorocarbons and the damaging effect of the chemicals on the planet’s ozone layer was diminished. Ramanathan and Xu note that were it not for the Montreal Protocol, the warming effect of chlorofluorocarbons would have added between 0.6 and 1.6 watts per square meter of extra heat energy by now.
Robert Monroe, 858-822-4487, email@example.com