Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Drivers of peak warming in a consumption-maximizing world


Peak human-induced warming is primarily determined by cumulative CO2 emissions up to the time they are reduced to zero1,2,3. In an idealized economically optimal scenario4,5, warming continues until the social cost of carbon, which increases with both temperature and consumption because of greater willingness to pay for climate change avoidance in a prosperous world, exceeds the marginal cost of abatement at zero emissions, which is the cost of preventing, or recapturing, the last net tonne of CO2 emissions. Here I show that, under these conditions, peak warming is primarily determined by two quantities that are directly affected by near-term policy: the cost of ‘backstop’ mitigation measures available as temperatures approach their peak (those whose cost per tonne abated does not increase as emissions fall to zero); and the average carbon intensity of growth (the ratio between average emissions and the average rate of economic growth) between now and the time of peak warming. Backstop costs are particularly important at low peak warming levels. This highlights the importance of maintaining economic growth in a carbon-constrained world and reducing the cost of backstop measures, such as large-scale CO2 removal, in any ambitious consumption-maximizing strategy to limit peak warming.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: The relationship between peak warming, final mitigation costs and economic growth.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

  2. Allen, M. R. et al. Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne. Nature 458, 1163–1166 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Gillett, N. P. et al. Constraining the ratio of global warming to cumulative CO2 emissions using CMIP5 simulations. J. Clim. 26, 6844–6858 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Nordhaus, W. A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies (Yale Univ. Press, 2008).

    Google Scholar 

  5. Golosov, M., Hassler, J., Krusell, P. & Tsyvinski, A. Optimal taxes on fossil fuel in general equilibrium. Econometrica 82, 41–88 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  6. Stern, N. Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  7. Pindyck, R. S. Climate change policy: what do the models tell us? J. Econ. Lit. 51, 860–872 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Nordhaus, W. Estimates of the social cost of carbon: concepts and results from the DICE-2013R model and alternative approaches. J. Assoc. Environ. Res. Econ. 1, 273–312 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  9. Held, H. et al. Efficient climate policies under technology and climate uncertainty. Energy Econ. 31, S50–S61 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Schmidt, M. G. W. et al. Climate targets under uncertainty: challenges and remedies. Climatic Change 104, 783–791 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Tol, R. The social cost of carbon: trends, outliers and catastrophes. Economics 2, 2008-25 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  12. Weitzman, M. On modeling and interpreting the economics of catastrophic climate change. Rev. Econ. Stat. 91, 1–19 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Hope, C. Critical issues for the calculation of the social cost of CO2: why the estimates from PAGE09 are higher than those from PAGE2002. Climatic Change 117, 531–543 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Moyer, E. J. et al. Climate impacts on economic growth as drivers of uncertainty in the social cost of carbon. J. Leg. Stud. 43, 401–426 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Dietz, S. & Stern, N. Endogenous growth, convexity of damage and climate risk: how Nordhaus’ framework supports deep cuts in carbon emissions. Econ. J. 125, 574–620 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Held, I., Winton, M., Takahashi, K., Delworth, T. & Zeng, F. Probing the fast and slow components of global warming by returning abruptly to preindustrial forcing. J. Clim. 23, 2418–2427 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Ricke, K. L. & Caldeira, K. Maximum warming occurs about one decade after a carbon dioxide emission. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 124002 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Joos, F., Roth, R. & Fuglestvedt, J. S. et al. Carbon dioxide and climate impulse response functions for the computation of greenhouse gas metrics: a multi-model analysis. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 13, 2793–2825 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Friedlingstein, P. et al. Climate carbon cycle feedback analysis: results from the C4MIP model intercomparison. J. Clim. 19, 3337–3353 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Herrington, T. & Zickfeld, K. Path independence of climate and carbon cycle response over a broad range of cumulative carbon emissions. Earth Syst. Dynam. 5, 409–422 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Otto, F. E. L., Frame, D. J., Otto, A. & Allen, M. R. Embracing uncertainty in climate change policy. Nature Clim. Change 5, 917–920 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Shindell, D. et al. Simultaneously mitigating near-term climate change and improving human health and food security. Science 335, 183–189 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Clarke, L. et al. in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change (eds Edenhofer, O. et al.) Ch. 6, 413–510 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

    Google Scholar 

  24. van der Ploeg, F. Untapped fossil fuel and the green paradox: a classroom calibration of the optimal carbon tax. Environ. Econ. Policy Stud. 17, 185–210 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Rozenberg, J., Davies, S. J., Narloch, U. & Hallegatte, S. Climate constraints on the carbon intensity of economic growth. Environ. Res. Lett. 10, 095006 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Kriegler, E., Edenhofer, O., Reuster, L., Luderer, G. & Klein, D. Is atmospheric carbon dioxide removal a game changer for climate change mitigation? Climatic Change 118, 45–57 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  27. Nordhaus, W. Climate Clubs: Overcoming Free-riding in International Climate Policy. Am. Econ. Rev. 105, 1339–1370 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Helm, D. The Carbon Crunch: How We’re Getting Climate Change Wrong, and How to Fix it (Yale Univ. Press, 2012).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  29. Adoption of the Paris Agreement FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1 (UNFCCC, 2015).

  30. Keith, D. W. Why capture CO2 from the atmosphere? Science 325, 1654–1655 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. Nordhaus, W. & Sztorc, P. DICE2013R: Introduction and Users Manual 2nd edn (William Nordhaus, 2013);

    Google Scholar 

  32. Carbon Budget 2015 (Global Carbon Project, 2015);

Download references


The author would like to thank students on the University of Oxford ‘Physics of Climate Change’ and ‘Environmental Change and Management’ courses for their patience with early versions of the analysis; R. Millar for calculating for the IPCC WG3 scenarios and, with J. Boneham and Z. Nicholls, for checking the algebra; and C. Allen, B. Hahn, C. Hepburn, C. Hope and M. Weitzman for comments. This study was supported by the Oxford Martin Programme on Resource Stewardship and the Kung Carl XVI Gustaf 50-årsfond.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Myles R. Allen.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The author declares no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Drivers of peak warming in a consumption-maximizing world. (XLSX 20 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Allen, M. Drivers of peak warming in a consumption-maximizing world. Nature Clim Change 6, 684–686 (2016).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing