Cumulative carbon as a policy framework for achieving climate stabilization

H. Damon Matthews, Susan Solomon, Raymond Pierrehumbert


The primary objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that will avoid dangerous climate impacts. However, greenhouse gas concentration stabilization is an awkward framework within which to assess dangerous climate change on account of the significant lag between a given concentration level and the eventual equilibrium temperature change. By contrast, recent research has shown that global temperature change can be well described by a given cumulative carbon emissions budget. Here, we propose that cumulative carbon emissions represent an alternative framework that is applicable both as a tool for climate mitigation as well as for the assessment of potential climate impacts. We show first that both atmospheric CO2 concentration at a given year and the associated temperature change are generally associated with a unique cumulative carbon emissions budget that is largely independent of the emissions scenario. The rate of global temperature change can therefore be related to first order to the rate of increase of cumulative carbon emissions. However, transient warming over the next century will also be strongly affected by emissions of shorter lived forcing agents such as aerosols and methane. Non-CO2 emissions therefore contribute to uncertainty in the cumulative carbon budget associated with near-term temperature targets, and may suggest the need for a mitigation approach that considers separately short- and long-lived gas emissions. By contrast, long-term temperature change remains primarily associated with total cumulative carbon emissions owing to the much longer atmospheric residence time of CO2 relative to other major climate forcing agents.


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