“Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?”

James Hansen et. al

Summary

Humanity today, collectively, must face the uncomfortable fact that industrial civilization itself has become the principal driver of global climate. If we stay our present course, using fossil fuels to feed a growing appetite for energy-intensive life styles, we will soon leave the climate of the Holocene, the world of prior human history. The eventual response to doubling pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 likely would be a nearly ice-free planet, preceded by a period of chaotic change with continually changing shorelines.

Humanity’s task of moderating human-caused global climate change is urgent. Ocean and ice sheet inertias provide a buffer delaying full response by centuries, but there is a danger that human-made forcings could drive the climate system beyond tipping points such that change proceeds out of our control. The time available to reduce the human-made forcing is uncertain,
because models of the global system and critical components such as ice sheets are inadequate.

However, climate response time is surely less than the atmospheric lifetime of the human-caused perturbation of CO2. Thus remaining fossil fuel reserves should not be exploited without a plan for retrieval and disposal of resulting atmospheric CO2.  Paleoclimate evidence and ongoing global changes imply that today’s CO2, about 385 ppm, is already too high to maintain the climate to which humanity, wildlife, and the rest of the biosphere are adapted. Realization that we must reduce the current CO2 amount has a bright side: effects that had begun to seem inevitable, including impacts of ocean acidification, loss of fresh water supplies, and shifting of climatic zones, may be averted by the necessity of finding an energy course beyond fossil fuels sooner than would otherwise have occurred.

We suggest an initial objective of reducing atmospheric CO2 to 350 ppm, with the target to be adjusted as scientific understanding and empirical evidence of climate effects accumulate.  Although a case already could be made that the eventual target probably needs to be lower, the 350 ppm target is sufficient to qualitatively change the discussion and drive fundamental changes in energy policy. Limited opportunities for reduction of non-CO2 human-caused forcings are important to pursue but do not alter the initial 350 ppm CO2 target. This target must be pursued on a timescale of decades, as paleoclimate and ongoing changes, and the ocean response time,
suggest that it would be foolhardy to allow CO2 to stay in the dangerous zone for centuries.

A practical global strategy almost surely requires a rising global price on CO2 emissions and phase-out of coal use except for cases where the CO2 is captured and sequestered. The carbon price should eliminate use of unconventional fossil fuels, unless, as is unlikely, the CO2 can be captured. A reward system for improved agricultural and forestry practices that sequester carbon could remove the current CO2 overshoot. With simultaneous policies to reduce non-CO2 greenhouse gases, it appears still feasible to avert catastrophic climate change.

Present policies, with continued construction of coal-fired power plants without CO2 capture, suggest that decision-makers do not appreciate the gravity of the situation. We must begin to move now toward the era beyond fossil fuels. Continued growth of greenhouse gas emissions, for just another decade, practically eliminates the possibility of near-term return of atmospheric composition beneath the tipping level for catastrophic effects.
The most difficult task, phase-out over the next 20-25 years of coal use that does not capture CO2, is Herculean, yet feasible when compared with the efforts that went into World War II.  The stakes, for all life on the planet, surpass those of any previous crisis. The greatest danger is continued ignorance and denial, which could make tragic consequences unavoidable.

Full report can be found at 350.org

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