This report quantifies, insofar as possible, the outcomes of different stabilization targets for greenhouse gas concentrations using analyses and information drawn from the scientific literature. It does not recommend or justify any particular stabilization target. It does provide important scientific insights about the relationships among emissions, greenhouse gas concentrations, temperatures, and impacts.
Carbon dioxide flows into and out of the ocean and biosphere in the natural breathing of the planet, but the uptake of added human emissions depends on the net change between flows, occurring over decades to millennia. This means that climate changes caused by carbon dioxide are expected to persist for many centuries even if emissions were to be halted at any point in time.
Such extreme persistence is unique to carbon dioxide among major agents that warm the planet. Choices regarding emissions of other warming agents, such as methane, black carbon on ice/snow, and aerosols, can affect global warming over coming decades but have little effect on longer-term warming of Earth over centuries and millennia. Thus, long-term effects are primarily controlled by carbon dioxide (see Figure Syn.1).
The report concludes that the world is entering a new geologic epoch, sometimes called the Anthropocene, in which human activities will largely control the evolution of Earth’s environment. Carbon emissions during this century will essentially determine the magnitude of eventual impacts and whether the Anthropocene is a short-term, relatively minor change from the current climate or an extreme deviation that lasts thousands of years. The higher the total, or cumulative, carbon dioxide emitted and the resulting atmospheric concentration, the higher the peak warming that will be experienced and the longer the duration of that warming. Duration is critical; longer warming periods allow more time for key, but slow, components of the Earth system to act as amplifiers of impacts, for example, warming of the deep ocean that releases carbon stored in deep-sea sediments. Warming sustained over thousands of years could lead to even bigger impacts (see Box Syn.1).
To date, climate stabilization goals have been most often discussed in terms of stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (e.g., 350