STOCKHOLM — The world’s top climate scientists on Friday formally embraced an upper limit on greenhouse gases for the first time, establishing a target level at which humanity must stop spewing the gases into the atmosphere or face irreversible climatic changes. They warned that the target is likely to be exceeded in a matter of decades unless steps are taken soon to reduce emissions.
Unveiling the latest United Nations assessment of climate science, the experts cited a litany of changes already underway, warned that they would probably accelerate and expressed virtual certainty that human activity is the main cause.
“Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time,” said Thomas F. Stocker, cochairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN-sponsored group of scientists that produced the report. “In short, it threatens our planet, our only home.”
The panel, in issuing its most definitive assessment yet of the risks of human-caused warming, hoped to give impetus to international negotiations toward a new climate treaty, which have languished in recent years in a swamp of technical and political disputes. The group made clear that time was not on the planet’s side if emissions continued unchecked.
“Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes,” the report said. “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”
Going well beyond its four previous analyses of the emissions problem, the panel endorsed a “carbon budget” for humanity — a limit on the amount of the primary greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, that can be produced by industrial activities and the clearing of forests.
No more than 1 trillion metric tons of carbon could be burned and the resulting gases released into the atmosphere, the panel found, if planetary warming is to be kept below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above the level of preindustrial times. That temperature is an internationally agreed target, above which scientists believe the most dangerous effects of climate change would begin to occur.
Just over a half-trillion tons have been burned since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and at the rate energy consumption is growing, the trillionth ton will be burned sometime around 2040, according to calculations by Myles R. Allen, a scientist at the University of Oxford and one of the authors of the new report. More than 3 trillion tons of carbon are still left in the ground as fossil fuels.
Once the trillion-ton budget is exhausted, companies that wanted to keep burning fossil fuels would have to come up with ways to capture carbon dioxide and store it underground. In the United States, the Obama administration is moving forward with rules that would essentially require such technology, expected to be costly, for any future coal-burning power plants; the president’s Republican opponents have accused him of waging a “war on coal.”
The report is a 30-page synopsis of a larger, 900-page report that is to be released next week. That will be followed by additional reports in 2014 on the likely impacts and on possible steps to limit the damage.
The group has now issued five major reports since 1990, each of them finding greater certainty that the world is warming and greater likelihood that human activity is the chief cause. The new report finds a 95 to 100 percent chance that most of the warming of recent decades is human-caused, up from the 90 to 100 percent chance cited in the last report, in 2007.
But the new document also acknowledges that climate science still contains uncertainties, including the expected magnitude of the warming for a given level of emissions, the rate at which the ocean will rise, and the likelihood that plants and animals will be driven to extinction. The scientists emphasized, however, that those uncertainties cut in both directions and the only way to limit the risk would be to limit emissions.
Climate-skeptic organizations assailed the new report as alarmist even before it was published.
The Heartland Institute, a Chicago organization, issued a document last week saying that any additional global warming would probably be limited to a few tenths of a degree and this “would not represent a climate crisis.”