Climate and air-quality benefits of a realistic phase-out of fossil fuels

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Abstract

The combustion of fossil fuels produces emissions of the long-lived greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and of short-lived pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, that contribute to the formation of atmospheric aerosols1. Atmospheric aerosols can cool the climate, masking some of the warming effect that results from the emission of greenhouse gases1. However, aerosol particulates are highly toxic when inhaled, leading to millions of premature deaths per year2,3. The phasing out of unabated fossil-fuel combustion will therefore provide health benefits, but will also reduce the extent to which the warming induced by greenhouse gases is masked by aerosols. Because aerosol levels respond much more rapidly to changes in emissions relative to carbon dioxide, large near-term increases in the magnitude and rate of climate warming are predicted in many idealized studies that typically assume an instantaneous removal of all anthropogenic or fossil-fuel-related emissions1,4,5,6,7,8,9. Here we show that more realistic modelling scenarios do not produce a substantial near-term increase in either the magnitude or the rate of warming, and in fact can lead to a decrease in warming rates within two decades of the start of the fossil-fuel phase-out. Accounting for the time required to transform power generation, industry and transportation leads to gradually increasing and largely offsetting climate impacts of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, with the rate of warming further slowed by reductions in fossil-methane emissions. Our results indicate that even the most aggressive plausible transition to a clean-energy society provides benefits for climate change mitigation and air quality at essentially all decadal to centennial timescales.

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Fig. 1: Anthropogenic emissions in pathways classified by the SR1.5 as consistent with a 1.5 °C temperature limit with little or no overshoot.
Fig. 2: Global mean surface temperatures and warming rates in the 1.5 °C pathways with little or no overshoot.
Fig. 3: Global mean surface temperature responses to changes in fossil-fuel-related emissions.

Data availability

All data used in this study is available at the Integrated Assessment Modelling Consortium’s 1.5 °C Scenario Explorer hosted by IIASA at https://data.ene.iiasa.ac.at/iamc-1.5c-explorer/. FaIR v1.3.6 is available from https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.1549342.

Code availability

Code used in this study is available from https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3383064.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Integrated Assessment Modeling teams for supplying their results to the data explorer, and IIASA for hosting the data.

Author information

D.S. conceived the study, C.S. analysed the scenarios, and both authors designed the analyses and wrote the paper.

Correspondence to Drew Shindell.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Peer review information Nature thanks Massimo Tavoni and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Fraction of total emissions due to fossil fuels.

Emissions are shown for each of the 17 scenarios in which data were provided (grey lines), along with the scenario mean (thick black line) values used in this study for the indicated components.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Temperature responses for zero anthropogenic SO2 emissions from 2019 onwards minus the original scenarios.

Differences between ensemble means from each scenario (solid lines) and 5th to 95th percentile regions spanning all scenarios (shaded area) are shown. This therefore presents the effect of an instantaneous removal relative to the gradual removal in the 1.5 °C scenarios, rather than relative to constant present-day emissions.

Extended Data Fig. 3 95th-percentile sensitivity calculations of global mean surface temperature response to changes in all fossil-fuel-related emissions.

Values are as in Fig. 3e, but for FaIR calculations using the 95th percentile of ECS, TCR and aerosol forcing simultaneously. Lines show ensemble means for 1.5 °C scenarios minus constant 2018 fossil-fuel emissions.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Sensitivity of historical and projected surface temperatures to geophysical uncertainties.

Responses of the global mean surface temperature to historical and projected emissions are shown using both ensemble mean (dashed lines) and the 95th percentile geophysical setup for ECS, TCR and aerosol forcing simultaneously (solid lines). The historical observations from Cowtan and Way50, HadCRUT440, GISTEMP41, NOAA42 and Berkeley Earth51 are shown for comparison. SAT, surface air temperature.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Global mean effective radiative forcing due to changes in fossil-fuel-related emissions.

Global mean annual average differences in ERF between the mitigation and constant-emissions scenarios shown in Fig. 3.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Instantaneous airborne fraction of CO2.

Values are derived from observations (green line) and from the FaIR model (other coloured lines).

Extended Data Fig. 7 Effect of projected changes in CO2.

a, Global mean surface temperature response to changes in CO2 relative to the present day. b, The associated ERF.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Sensitivity to updated radiative forcing from methane.

Response of the global mean surface temperature to changes in fossil-fuel-related methane emissions (left) and in all fossil-fuel-related emissions (right) as in Fig. 3c, e (top), but comparing against sensitivity calculations using the AR5 estimate of methane forcing (bottom) rather than the updated radiative efficiency accounting for shortwave absorption34 that is used throughout the rest of this study.

Extended Data Fig. 9 Colour key for figures with model and pathway name for the 1.5 °C pathways considered in this study.

The colours range from dark to light in ascending order of the peak temperature increase of the pathway.

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Shindell, D., Smith, C.J. Climate and air-quality benefits of a realistic phase-out of fossil fuels. Nature 573, 408–411 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1554-z

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