New National Academy of Sciences report: Emissions cuts needed soon to stem global warming

July 16, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

A major new report out this morning from the National Academy of Sciences has some important findings for West Virginia leaders — such as Sen. Jay Rockefeller — who aren’t in any hurry to put a limit on greenhouse gas emissions.

The headline on the academy’s National Research Council news release sums it up well: “Near-term emissions choices could lock in climate changes for centuries to millennia.” According to the release:

Choices made now about carbon dioxide emissions reductions will affect climate change impacts experienced not just over the next few decades but also in coming centuries and millennia, says a new report from the National Research Council. Because CO2 in the atmosphere is long lived, it can effectively lock the Earth and future generations into a range of impacts, some of which could become very severe.

Here’s an example:

Currently the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 390 parts per million volume (ppmv), the highest level in at least 800,000 years. Depending on emissions rates, that level could double or nearly triple by the end of the century, greatly amplifying future human impacts on climate, the report says.

Because the amount of human-caused CO2 emissions already far exceeds the amount that can be removed through natural carbon “sinks” such as oceans, keeping emissions rates the same will not stabilize the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Even if emissions held steady, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would increase, much like the water level in a bathtub when water is coming in faster than it is draining. Emissions reductions larger than about 80 percent, relative to whatever peak global emissions rate may be reached, would be required to approximately stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations for a century or so at any chosen target level.

Further, stabilizing atmospheric concentrations does not mean that temperatures will stabilize immediately. Warming that occurs in response to a given increase in the CO2 concentration is only about half the total warming that will ultimately occur. For example, if the CO2 concentration stabilizes at 550 ppmv, the Earth would warm about 1.6 C on the way to that level; but even after the CO2 level stabilizes, the warming would continue to grow in the following decades and centuries, reaching a best-estimate global “equilibrium” warming of about 3 C (5.4 F). Waiting to observe impacts before choosing a stabilization target would therefore imply a lock-in to about twice as much eventual crop loss, rainfall changes, and other impacts that increase with warming.

The report’s executive summary is here, and the entire report is available here.

4 Responses to “New National Academy of Sciences report: Emissions cuts needed soon to stem global warming”

  1. Thomas Rodd says:

    Thank you to the Charleston Gazette and this blog for bringing this information forward.

    Senator Rockefeller and his staff already have this information in front of them — and having the information publicized in West Virginia will help to “get their attention” — so that legislation that puts a price on carbon and supports massive CCS investment is enacted this year.

    Future generations — heck, our children and grandchildren who are alive today — will look back and curse the short-sightedness of every political leader who delayed taking sensible, job-creating measures that are needed NOW to try to avoid the terrifying climate scenarios that are looming larger every day.

    Senator Rockefeller, who has been a leader and a solid vote for jobs and the public health and welfare for many years, does not want or need those curses — as part of his legacy.

    Gazette and Coal Tattoo, please keep shining the light on this important issue.

  2. Vernon says:

    In my opinion, “massive investment” in CCS means taxpayer subsidies for a horribly expensive false solution that only props up the coal industry. Funding would be better spent on renewables (including R&D on energy storage technology) and efficiency. A more practical path that does not call for continuing taxpayer subsidies for the coal industry is in the “Beyond Business As Usual” report at

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I agree with Vernon. We just have to realize that coal should be considered a “temporary” energy until we can utilize renewables. Certainly we do not need to continue subsidizing the coal industry with investment in CCS at the expense of not investing in alternative energy. There are, in this Union, 49 other states which have an economies that are not totally depend on coal; is there any reason why we can’t do the same?

  4. Thomas Rodd says:

    Vernon and Elizabeth, your points are well grounded in fact, in terms of the USA. The USA is relatively well situated to start to use non-coal sources of energy, like shale natural gas, to reduce carbon emissions, as we move to a very-reduced-carbon emisssions economy — compared to other industrialized nations, and compared to the emerging economies of China and india.

    But on a global scale, plenty of experts feel that (1) CCS is the only hope for constraining carbon emissions in China and India; and (2) that massive Western investment in CCS is necessary to help CCS become a reality in those nations — and avoid horrible planetary consequences.

    Also, supporting CCS makes climate legislation much more politically palatable in the USA.

    So, I hope you’ll take these concerns into account.

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