, Volume 82, Issue 3-4, pp 373-391

To what extent can a long-term temperature target guide near-term climate change commitments?

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Abstract

The question of appropriate timing and stringency of future greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions remains an issue in the discussion of mitigation responses to the climate change problem. It has been argued that our near-term action should be guided by a long-term vision for the climate, possibly a long-term temperature target. In this paper, we review proposals for long-term climate targets to avoid ‘dangerous’ climate change. Using probability estimates of climate sensitivity from the literature, we then generate probabilistic emissions scenarios that satisfy temperature targets of 2.0, 2.5, and 3.0°C above pre-industrial levels with no overshoot. Our interest is in the implications of these targets on abatement requirements over the next 50 years. If we allow global industrial GHG emissions to peak in 2025 at 14 GtCeq, and wish to achieve a 2.0°C target with at least 50% certainty, we find that the low sensitivity estimate in the literature suggests our industrial emissions must fall to 9 GtCeq by 2050: equal to the level in 2000. However, the average literature sensitivity estimate suggests the level must be less than 2 GtCeq; and in the high sensitivity case, the target is simply unreachable unless we allow for overshoot. Our results suggest that in light of the uncertainty in our knowledge of the climate sensitivity, a long-term temperature target (such as the 2.0°C target proposed by the European Commission) can provide limited guidance to near-term mitigation requirements.