A new study published in early January 2021 doesn’t bring great news. It seems that no matter what we do – even if we emit zero greenhouse gases tomorrow, which is virtually impossible – the emissions that will cause the planet’s temperature to go beyond 2ºC (3.6ºF) are already out there.

We Have Already Emitted Enough Carbon Dioxide To Exceed 2°C (3.6ºF)

I feel like I’ve just been punched in the gut.

Multiple times.

And to be honest, I’m having a hard time finding the right words to let know this so it feels less like a punch in the gut for you.

But I’m afraid I can’t. Because there’s really no easy way to say it.

Remember all the times you heard from some credible civil society expert – a teacher, a scientist, a journalist – or read on the news how important it was for the planet’s temperature not to increase more than 2ºC (3.6º Fahrenheit)?

And you have probably heard about the Paris Agreement, right?

Signed by 194 parties, it aimed at holding the global average temperature increase, keeping it “well below 2ºC and above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7ºF) above pre-industrial levels”.

Well, let me put it like this: in a sense, we don’t have to worry about this anymore.

Some recent scientific studies and developments have shown we’re closer to crossing some of the planet’s tiping points.

Others suggested there’s less biodiversity than what was initially forecasted.

And others warned about the fact that ecosystems around the world are declining faster than anticipated.

Well, in the same line, it looks like we might have already gone over that 2ºC (3.6ªF) temperature threshold, a new study suggests.

That’s right: this study suggests we’ve already released enough greenhouse gases to surpass the 2ºC (3.6ºF) temperature increase limits.

Here’s why.

How Past Greenhouse Gas Emissions Are Yet To Warm the Planet

The planet will become over 2ºC (3.6ºF) warmer in the future.

Just from the greenhouse gases that have already been released into the atmosphere up to today.

This is the hard truth and the conclusion of new research published in Nature Climate Change and conducted by scientists from Nanjing University, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and Texas A&M University.

And how exactly is this possible? You’re probably wondering.

To understand it, we first need to explore the concept of committed warming.

It represents the warming we can expect will occur in the future as a result of emissions that have already taken place and whose impact is yet to happen. That’s how Andrew Dessler, an atmospheric scientist and one of the study’s co-authors explains it.

Now consider that in 2015 the global mean warming reached 1°C above preindustrial levels for the first time. This started showing we had only a 0.5-1ºC emissions margin.

And in what looks like a very futuristic – and, to be honest, engaging – way of analyzing scientific papers, Dessler explains on a video how past emissions – the committed warming we just saw – will still lead to temperature increases.

He says these past emissions will still contribute to temperature rises because it takes us a very long time to fully realize their warming impacts.

For instance, the ocean has a huge amount of heat capacity and it takes decades to centuries for it to warm up in response to those emissions.

So there’s some kind of time gap between cause and effect where “pipeline emissions” hide.

Carbon Emissions: Pipeline Emissions Will Cause Extra Warming

greenhouse emissions global warming

The research team used climate model simulations to re-evaluate how much warming is “in the pipeline” from past emissions.

Since they account for changes in the geographic pattern of surface warming, their estimate was higher compared to previous estimates – which generally assumed changes in the future will follow changes in the past.

However, as mentioned earlier, while most of the planet’s surface has warmed, several important regions, like the Southern Ocean, have not.

And the lack of surface warming facilitates the development of low-level clouds over these regions, which reflect sunlight back to space and strongly cool the planet.

These regions will eventually warm up and when they do, the low clouds will decrease. This will mean the planet will absorb more sunlight and warm even more.

And this is why assuming changes in the future will follow changes in the past – the modus operandi so far to predict temperature increases – seem to not be enough.

And so, taking this effect (and the committed warming) into consideration, the estimated future warming from past emissions will be higher than what previous estimates thought.

This extra warming that needs to be accounted for was even very recently (January 10, 2021) discussed in a Zoom meeting now available on Youtube between Greta Thunberg, HH the Dalai Lama and two climate change scientists.

But how much more will the Earth warm? Around 2.3º C (4.1ºF) above pre-industrial levels, according to this study.

Yes – more than the 2ºC (3.6ºF) above pre-industrial temperatures the world’s countries agreed to avoid in the Paris Agreement.

“The bad news is that our results suggest that we have most likely already emitted enough carbon dioxide to exceed 2°C,” said Dessler.

And now what?

Net Zero Emissions Are More Urgent Than Ever Before

We’ve seen how the climate is already (and frequently) reaching periods where it warms – on average and over 9 months – more than 1ºC.

We can’t pull back past emissions – at least for now, since there are no sucking carbon technologies currently available – and their cascade and loop effects.

So this means that, at this point, we can’t avoid future warming that is coming as a result of our past emissions.

However – and this is the only “however” here and it still isn’t a very good one – the faster net emissions decrease and get closer to zero, then the rate of continued, committed warming will be slower.

So if we can “get net emissions to near zero soon, it may take centuries to exceed 2ºC (3.6ºF)”, Dessler says.

And we can eventually find time to adapt or to learn how to cope with climate change and mitigate its consequences.

If it wasn’t important enough, this study and its findings highlight even more how urgent it is that greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced ASAP.

No one knows how today’s global economy, which seems to be incompatible with climate change mitigation – as the coronavirus crisis has unraveled – will turn around.

And getting back to the idea of infinite growth and business as usual to re-establish the social balance so urgently needed might seem like the best – or the only – way forward.

But it is not.

And like some important figures in the sustainability space have been pointing out and raising awareness about – from John Elkington and Mariana Mazzucato to Kate Ranworth, Leen Gorissen or Ellen Macarthur – back to normal is not the way forward but the highway to climate disaster.

Truly circular business models and new job frameworks around them need to be seriously considered and planned.

Rewilding – like Sir David Attenborough mentions in the A Life On Our Planet Documentary – the urban spaces we’ve built; while learning to work alongside Nature rather than against it (I think I learned this quote from Daniel C. Wahl) are crucial ideas too.

Just like it is urgent that we – and particularly top decision-makers – learn to truly appreciate and value our differences and navigate conflicts so global consensus on crucial matters – like a carbon emissions trading scheme – can be found.

[Photo by Riccardo Mion and Joel Vodell on Unsplash]