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The climate change stopping distance

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

In a recent report, the Brookings Institution has compared reacting to climate change with learning to drive. According to Stephen R. Palumbi of the Institute: ‘Every teenager learning to drive knows the concept of stopping distance…Reaction time matters too; an alert driver can see an obstacle and hit the brakes in about a second and a half. If she brakes too hard, she’ll enter a skid. The vehicle will lose traction and take even longer to stop’.

Brookings holds that climate change is just the same: it won’t stop suddenly. Even if governments found a way to stop producing excess CO2 and we implemented this today, preventing further increases in emissions, it would still take decades for the extra CO2 to be removed from the atmosphere. This is part of the climate change stopping distance.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has plotted about a number of scenarios in regards to the actions necessary to reduce the impacts of climate change. In two possible futures, dubbed RDP6 and RCP4.5, emissions begin declining by 2040 or 2060 and drop below present levels by the date of 2100 (an optimistic projection according to Brookings).

However, even in these scenarios, CO2 content in the atmosphere won’t stop dropping for another century beyond 2100. So the stopping distance for climate change is 50 – 100 years at best.

Despite this, after this time, some species, some corals, some rainforest may begin to recover. Brookings holds that the we can make the 22nd century a period of climate recovery, but only if we act by the mid-21st century.

The longer we wait, and the more severe the climate damage, the longer the stopping time. Plumbi insists that waiting until ecosystems are collapsing at the end of the 21st century would impose something like a century more of stopping distance. Furthermore, the continued ecosystem damage during this period could create even greater damage, pushing more species past extreme limits.

Timeline for action

The Brookings Institution suggests a timeline for action in order to prevent the world entering a metaphorical skid, unable to stop the ongoing impacts of climate change:

  • Set a goal to plateau atmospheric CO2 levels by 2100.
  • To achieve this goal, emissions need to drop to low levels by 2050. This gives 35 years to replace most fossil fuels with renewables, approximately 3% replacement per year and another 2% increase for economic growth.

Is this rate of replacement achievable? For Brookings, it has to be, if we want to stop climate change in its tracks.

Adapted from a report by Emma McAleavey.

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