Cutting emissions won’t cause sudden spike in warming

New research shows that, contrary to some fears, cutting fossil fuel emissions gradually would not cause an unintended jump in temperatures.

The researchers at Duke University and the University of Leeds analysed 42 scenarios presenting timescales for a very rapid transition from fossil fuels to clean energy around the world.

“Under all of these scenarios there is no significant spike in warming, no climate penalty, and we actually see a decrease in warming rates within two decades of the start of the phase-out,” said Drew Shinell at Duke University.

“The only scenarios that result in a significant warming spike are implausible ones in which worldwide emissions are halted instantaneously or over a very short timescale. But in the real world, that’s not going to happen. It will take decades to transition to clean energy.”

Some have argued in recent years that rapidly transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy will unintentionally lead to a short-term rise in atmospheric warming of about half a degree Celsius, which could take up to a century to reverse. These fears are based on the idea that the aerosols released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels actually obscure the sunlight. These would clear relatively quickly, but long-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide would persist and create a net warming

“Our finding shows these fears are unfounded,” said Christopher J. Smith at the University of Leeds. “Under a realistic rate of fossil-fuel phase-out, we do clean up the air, unmasking historically suppressed cooling. But we would also reduce the rate of further greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere, slowing down future warming.”

These competing effects would balance each other out, making any increase in the short-term warming rate would be quite small compared to what would happen if emissions are allowed to remain at current levels.

The new findings are good news for public health, too. As Shindell explains, aerosol particulates are highly toxic when inhaled and cause millions of premature deaths each year, “so taking these steps to reduce emissions and slow climate change will also save lives.”

Image credit: Ian Britton via Flickr

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