Transient Earth system responses to cumulative carbon dioxide emissions: linearities, uncertainties, and probabilities in an observation-constrained model ensemble

Information on the relationship between cumulative fossil CO2 emissions and multiple climate targets is essential to design emission mitigation and climate adaptation strategies. In this study, the transient response of a climate or environmental variable per trillion tonnes of CO2 emissions, termed TRE, is quantified for a set of impact-relevant climate variables and from a large set of multi-forcing scenarios extended to year 2300 towards stabilization. An  ∼ 1000-member ensemble of the Bern3D-LPJ carbon–climate model is applied and model outcomes are constrained by 26 physical and biogeochemical observational data sets in a Bayesian, Monte Carlo-type framework. Uncertainties in TRE estimates include both scenario uncertainty and model response uncertainty. Cumulative fossil emissions of 1000 Gt C result in a global mean surface air temperature change of 1.9 °C (68 % confidence interval (c.i.): 1.3 to 2.7 °C), a decrease in surface ocean pH of 0.19 (0.18 to 0.22), and a steric sea level rise of 20 cm (13 to 27 cm until 2300). Linearity between cumulative emissions and transient response is high for pH and reasonably high for surface air and sea surface temperatures, but less pronounced for changes in Atlantic meridional overturning, Southern Ocean and tropical surface water saturation with respect to biogenic structures of calcium carbonate, and carbon stocks in soils. The constrained model ensemble is also applied to determine the response to a pulse-like emission and in idealized CO2-only simulations. The transient climate response is constrained, primarily by long-term ocean heat observations, to 1.7 °C (68 % c.i.: 1.3 to 2.2 °C) and the equilibrium climate sensitivity to 2.9 °C (2.0 to 4.2 °C). This is consistent with results by CMIP5 models but inconsistent with recent studies that relied on short-term air temperature data affected by natural climate variability.

Steinacher M. & Joos, F., in press. Transient Earth system responses to cumulative carbon dioxide emissions: linearities, uncertainties, and probabilities in an observation-constrained model ensemble. Biogeosciences 13, 1071-1103. Article.


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