Cumulative carbon emissions, emissions floors and short-term rates of warming: implications for policy

Niel H. A. Bowerman, David J. Frame, Chris Huntingford, Jason A. Lowe, Myles R. Allen


A number of recent studies have found a strong link between peak human-induced global warming and cumulative carbon emissions from the start of the industrial revolution, while the link to emissions over shorter periods or in the years 2020 or 2050 is generally weaker. However, cumulative targets appear to conflict with the concept of a ‘floor’ in emissions caused by sectors such as food production. Here, we show that the introduction of emissions floors does not reduce the importance of cumulative emissions, but may make some warming targets unachievable. For pathways that give a most likely warming up to about 4°C, cumulative emissions from pre-industrial times to year 2200 correlate strongly with most likely resultant peak warming regardless of the shape of emissions floors used, providing a more natural long-term policy horizon than 2050 or 2100. The maximum rate of CO2-induced warming, which will affect the feasibility and cost of adapting to climate change, is not determined by cumulative emissions but is tightly aligned with peak rates of emissions. Hence, cumulative carbon emissions to 2200 and peak emission rates could provide a clear and simple framework for CO2 mitigation policy.

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