Climate researchers now admit that the worst case scenario for carbon emissions is no longer plausible, after a key climate model used until recently was found to have overestimated the amount of coal the world would burn.
The “business as usual” model had assumed that there would be a 500% increase in coal use this century, but the growing popularity of renewables means that carbon emissions will be a lot lower than expected, making the much-feared warming of up to 6C by 2100 very unlikely.
According to the researchers, temperatures are more likely to increase by 3C by the end of the century, whilst claims that an extinction is possible appear far-fetched.
Explaining how the mistake occurred, the BBC’s environment correspondent Matt McGrath writes:
[box] About 10 years ago, ahead of the fifth assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), researchers developed four different scenarios to describe how carbon emissions might change over the rest of this century.
One of these clumsily titled “Representative Concentration Pathways” (RCPs), was called RCP8.5 and it was intended to show the impact of very high emissions consistent with a five fold increase in the use of coal and virtually no policies to limit CO2 emissions.
RCP8.5 was first developed by energy researchers to help with their modelling. According to the authors of this paper, they didn’t do a good job of communicating the limitations of this approach to climate scientists who wanted to use it to see what would happen with temperatures.
Rather than being seen as something that only had a 3% chance of becoming reality, it became known as the “business-as-usual” scenario, by climate scientists and has been used in more than 2,000 research papers since.
“What we’re arguing is that we’ve been misusing the worst climate change scenario,” said author Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute in California. “Obviously, a lot has changed since 2005 or so when the scenario was created. A lot of clean technology prices have fallen, by factors of five, while global coal use peaked in 2013. And it’s been flat since then.”
“So what originally was a sort of worst-case (scenario) with less than 10% chance of happening is today, exceedingly unlikely.”
Does this mean that climate scientists have been exaggerating the threat? This is more about scientific assumptions added to a communications cock-up. Very few scientists realised that RCP8.5 was originally a 90th percentile outcome, not a most likely or business-as-usual outcome. They assumed too much, when they should perhaps have checked, say the authors of the review.
“At the end of the day, scientists have to take responsibility for what they choose as input data, and there should be a degree of due diligence,” said Glen Peters, from the CICERO Center for International Climate Research in Norway.
“How many of your average climate scientists know the nuances of RCP8.5? It would certainly be interesting to know.”
The media, taking their steer from scientists, have tended to use the highest impacts when reporting on projections based on emissions scenarios.
“That’s not to say that these highest-end impacts are impossible to happen, but it is not business-as-usual. And that’s the point we’re really trying to make in this piece.”
Does this mean that our projections about future temperature rises are wrong? Not necessarily. This new work questions the chances of very high future emissions because renewable energy is now much cheaper, and competing with coal. So rather than a world that warms by 6C, it should mean that the world will warm by around 3C based on current policies that countries have signed up to.
However, the authors are at pains to point out that the lower temperatures aren’t guaranteed. That’s because scientists are still uncertain as to how sensitive temperatures are to CO2. New models are being used for the next set of major projections due from the IPCC next year. Those models are said to show that temperatures are more sensitive to CO2 than previously thought.
There is also the question of climate feedbacks. Although emissions from human activities might level off over this century, warming could see more permafrost melt which will push more methane and CO2 into the air, putting upward pressure on temperatures.
“I don’t think we can rule out a world of four degrees or above, because of these uncertainties in climate sensitivity and the uncertainties in carbon cycle feedbacks,” said Zeke Hausfather. “So even under a lower emission scenario, you could have higher sea level rise, higher warming impacts, if climate sensitivity ends up being on the high end.”
Zeke Hausfather’s Nature article on carbon emission levels can be viewed here.