How difficult is it to recover from dangerous levels of global warming?
Lowe, J. A., Huntingford, C., Raper, S.C.B., Jones, C.D., Liddicoat, S.K. and Gohar, L.K. (2009) How difficult is it to recover from dangerous levels of global warming? Environmental Research Letters, 4 (1). 014012. ISSN 1748-9326
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To link to this article DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/4/1/014012
Climate models provide compelling evidence that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at present rates, then key global temperature thresholds (such as the European Union limit of two degrees of warming since pre-industrial times) are very likely to be crossed in the next few decades. However, there is relatively little attention paid to whether, should a dangerous temperature level be exceeded, it is feasible for the global temperature to then return to safer levels in a usefully short time. We focus on the timescales needed to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases and associated temperatures back below potentially dangerous thresholds, using a state-of-the-art general circulation model. This analysis is extended with a simple climate model to provide uncertainty bounds. We find that even for very large reductions in emissions, temperature reduction is likely to occur at a low rate. Policy-makers need to consider such very long recovery timescales implicit in the Earth system when formulating future emission pathways that have the potential to 'overshoot' particular atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and, more importantly, related temperature levels that might be considered dangerous.