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Climate response to zeroed emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols


The climate response to scenarios of zero future greenhouse-gas emissions can be interpreted as the committed future warming associated with past emissions, and represents a critical benchmark against which to estimate the effect of future emissions1,2. Recent climate-model simulations have shown that when emissions of carbon dioxide alone are eliminated, global temperature stabilizes and remains approximately constant for several centuries2,3,4,5,6,7,8. Here, we show that when aerosol and other greenhouse-gas emissions are also eliminated, global temperature increases by a few tenths of a degree over about a decade, as a result of the rapid removal of present-day aerosol forcing. This initial warming is followed by a gradual cooling that returns global temperature to present-day levels after several centuries, owing to the decline in non-carbon dioxide greenhouse-gas concentrations. We show further that the magnitude of the peak temperature response to zero future emissions depends strongly on the uncertain strength of present-day aerosol forcing. Contingent on the climate and carbon-cycle sensitivities of the model used here, we show that the range of aerosol forcing that produces historical warming that is consistent with observed data, results in a warming of between 0.25 and 0.5 °C over the decade immediately following zeroed emissions.

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Figure 1: Global climate response to zeroed emissions of CO2, other greenhouse gases and aerosols at the year 2010.
Figure 2: Spatial pattern of temperature change following the elimination of CO2, other greenhouse-gas and aerosol emissions at the year 2010.
Figure 3: Simulated temperature response to zeroed emissions of CO2, other greenhouse gases and aerosols, with the strength of historical aerosol forcing varying between −0.8 and −1.9 W m−2 at the year 2010.

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We acknowledge financial support for this research from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. We thank N. Gillett and S. Solomon for discussions surrounding earlier versions of these results, as well as S. Turner for support, encouragement and editorial advice.

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H.D.M. and K.Z. conceived the experiment; H.D.M. carried out the simulations, wrote most of the paper and assisted with the Supplementary Information; K.Z. provided forcing data, assisted with writing the paper and wrote most of the Supplementary Information.

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Correspondence to H. Damon Matthews.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Matthews, H., Zickfeld, K. Climate response to zeroed emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols. Nature Clim Change 2, 338–341 (2012).

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