Planet at risk of heading towards irreversible “Hothouse Earth” state
Keeping global warming to within 1.5-2°C may be more difficult than previously assessed. An international team of scientists, with the participation of Center from Macroecology, Evolution and Climate, University of Copenhagen, shows that even if the carbon emission reductions called for in the Paris Agreement are met, there is a risk of the planet entering what the scientists call “Hothouse Earth” conditions.
A “Hothouse Earth” climate will in the long term stabilize at a global average of 4-5°C higher than pre-industrial temperatures with sea level 10-60 m higher than today. The warning has been published in the acknowledged scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Thus, accelerating the transition towards an emission-free world economy has become more urgent than ever, the authors conclude:
“Human emissions of greenhouse gas are not the sole determinant of temperature on Earth. Our study suggests that human-induced global warming of 2°C may trigger other Earth system processes, often called “feedbacks”, that can drive further warming - even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases”, says lead author Will Steffen from the Australian National University and Stockholm Resilience Centre. “Avoiding this scenario requires a redirection of human actions from exploitation to stewardship of the Earth system.”
Currently, global average temperatures are just over 1°C above pre-industrial and rising at 0.17°C per decade.
Domino effect may tip the Earth system into a new state
The authors of the study consider ten natural feedback processes, some of which are “tipping elements” that lead to abrupt change if a critical threshold is crossed. These feedbacks could turn from being a “friend” that stores carbon into a “foe” that emits it uncontrollably in a warmer world. These feedbacks are: permafrost thaw, loss of methane hydrates from the ocean floor, weakening land and ocean carbon sinks, increasing bacterial respiration in the oceans, Amazon rainforest dieback, boreal forest dieback, reduction of northern hemisphere snow cover, loss of Arctic summer sea ice, and reduction of Antarctic sea ice and polar ice sheets.
“These tipping elements can potentially act like a row of dominoes. Once one is pushed over, it pushes Earth towards another. It may be very difficult or impossible to stop the whole row of dominoes from tumbling over. Places on Earth will become uninhabitable if “Hothouse Earth” becomes the reality,” adds co-author Johan Rockström, Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and incoming co-Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
Co-author Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, says, "We show how industrial-age greenhouse gas emissions force our climate, and ultimately the Earth system, out of balance. In particular, we address tipping elements in the planetary machinery that might, once a certain stress level has been passed, one by one change fundamentally, rapidly, and perhaps irreversibly. This cascade of events may tip the entire Earth system into a new mode of operation.”
“What we do not know yet is whether the climate system can be safely 'parked' near 2°C above pre-industrial levels, as the Paris Agreement envisages. Or if it will, once pushed so far, slip down the slope towards a hothouse planet. Research must assess this risk as soon as possible."
Cutting greenhouse gases is not enough
Maximizing the chances of avoiding a “Hothouse Earth” requires not only reduction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions but also enhancement and/or creation of new biological carbon stores, for example, through improved forest, agricultural and soil management; biodiversity conservation; and technologies that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it underground, the paper says. Critically, the study emphasizes that these measures must be underpinned by fundamental societal changes that are required to maintain a “Stabilized Earth” where temperatures are ~2°C warmer than the pre-industrial.
“Climate and other global changes show us that we humans are impacting the Earth system at the global level. This means that we as a global community can also manage our relationship with the system to influence future planetary conditions. This study identifies some of the levers that can be used to do so,” concludes co-author, Professor Katherine Richardson, Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate, University of Copenhagen.
Read the study: Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene (link)
Professor Katherine Richardson
Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate
Leader of Sustainability Science Centre, University of Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 28 75 42 85
Australian National University and Stockholm Resilience Centre
Phone: (+61) 447 980 495
Phone: (+46) 73 46 04 833
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber
Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
Phone: (+49) 331 288 25 07
Lotte Nymark Busch Jensen
Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate.
Phone: (+45) 21 93 90 87