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Global warming: irreversible but not inevitable

Carbon dioxide emission cuts will immediately affect the rate of future global warming
April 2, 2013
By Media Relations

Damon Matthews is an associate professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment. | Photo by Concordia University
Damon Matthews is an associate professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment. | Photo by Concordia University

There is a persistent misconception among both scientists and the public that there is a delay between emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and the climate’s response to those emissions. This misconception has led policy makers to argue that CO2 emission cuts implemented now will not affect the climate system for many decades. This erroneous line of argument makes the climate problem seem more intractable than it actually is, say Concordia University’s Damon Matthews and MIT’s Susan Solomon in a recent Science article.

The researchers show that immediate decreases in CO2 emissions would in fact result in an immediate decrease in the rate of climate warming. Explains Matthews, professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, “If we can successfully decrease CO2 emissions in the near future, this change will be felt by the climate system when the emissions reductions are implemented – not in several decades."

“The potential for a quick climate response to prompt cuts in CO2 emissions opens up the possibility that the climate benefits of emissions reductions would occur on the same timescale as the political decisions themselves.”

In their paper, Matthews and Solomon, Ellen Swallow Richards professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Science, show that the onus for slowing the rate of global warming falls squarely on current efforts at reducing CO2 emissions, and the resulting future emissions that we produce. This means that there are critical implications for the equity of carbon emission choices currently being discussed internationally.

Total emissions from developing countries may soon exceed those from developed nations. But developed countries are expected to maintain a far higher per-capita contribution to present and possible future warming. “This disparity clarifies the urgency for low-carbon technology investment and diffusion to enable developing countries to continue to develop,” says Matthews.

“Emission cuts made now will have an immediate effect on the rate of global warming,” he asserts. “I see more hope for averting difficult-to-avoid negative impacts by accelerating advances in technology development and diffusion, than for averting climate system changes that are already inevitable. Given the enormous scope and complexity of the climate mitigation challenge, clarifying these points of hope is critical to motivate change.”

Related links:
•    Science Express
•    Concordia’s Department of Geography, Planning and Environment
•    Damon Matthews' profile on Research @ Concordia

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