IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Scenario analysis and analysis of stabilisation targets

Scenario analysis examines the implications of specified emissions pathways or concentration profiles for future climate change, e.g., magnitude and rate of temperature increase. Some studies focus on the key radiative forcing agent CO2, while others include additional gases and aerosols in their analysis, often representing concentrations in terms of CO2-equivalent ppm or radiative forcing in W/m2 (see Forster et al., 2007 Section 2.3). Dynamic analyses include information about the trajectories of GHG emissions and development pathways, GHG concentrations, climate change and associated impacts. Related static analyses examine the relationship between stabilisation targets for GHG concentrations and equilibrium values for climate parameters (typically the increase in global mean temperature). Note that the term ‘GHG stabilisation’ is used here with a time horizon of up to several centuries. Over a longer time period without anthropogenic GHG emissions, CO2 concentrations may return to values close to pre-industrial levels through natural processes (Brovkin et al., 2002; Putilov, 2003; Semenov, 2004a,b; Izrael and Semenov, 2005, 2006).

The shape over time of the specified emissions pathway or concentration profile is of particular relevance when considering key vulnerabilities, as it influences transient climate change and associated climate impacts (see, e.g., O’Neill and Oppenheimer, 2004; Meinshausen, 2005; Schneider and Mastrandrea, 2005; Mastrandrea and Schneider, 2006). Two general categories can be distinguished in studies that specifically consider CO2 concentrations or temperature thresholds associated with key vulnerabilities or DAI: stabilisation scenarios, which imply concentrations increasing smoothly from current levels to a final stabilisation concentration (e.g., Enting et al., 1994; Schimel et al., 1996; Wigley et al., 1996; Morita et al., 2000; Swart et al., 2002; O’Neill and Oppenheimer, 2004) and peaking or overshoot scenarios, where a final concentration stabilisation level is temporarily exceeded (Harvey, 2004; Kheshgi, 2004; O’Neill and Oppenheimer, 2004; Wigley, 2004; Izrael and Semenov, 2005; Kheshgi et al., 2005; Meinshausen et al., 2005; Frame et al., 2006). Overshoot scenarios are necessary for the exploration of stabilisation levels close to or below current concentration levels.

Some studies treat the uncertainty in future GHG emissions and climate change by analysing a discrete range of scenarios. O’Neill and Oppenheimer (2002) examined ranges of global mean temperature increase in 2100 associated with 450, 550 and 650 ppm CO2 concentration stabilisation profiles, as reported in the TAR (Cubasch et al., 2001). They concluded that none of these scenarios would prevent widespread coral-reef bleaching in 2100 (assumed to have a threshold 1°C increase above current levels), and that only the 450 ppm CO2 stabilisation profile is likely to be associated with avoiding both deglaciation of West Antarctica (assumed to have a threshold of 2°C above current levels) and collapse of the MOC (assumed to have a threshold of 3°C increase within 100 years). Lowe et al. (2006) consider a suite of climate scenarios based on a ‘perturbed parameter ensemble’ of Hadley Centre climate models, finding that, for stabilisation close to 450 ppm, 5% of their scenarios exceed a threshold for deglaciation of West Antarctica (assumed to be 2.1°C local warming above 1990-2000 levels). Corfee-Morlot and Höhne (2003) review the current knowledge about climate impacts for each ‘reason for concern’ at different levels of global mean temperature change and CO2 stabilisation, based on published probability density functions (PDFs) of climate sensitivity, finding that any CO2 stabilisation target above 450 ppm is associated with a significant probability of triggering a large-scale climatic event. An inverse analysis of the implications of reaching CO2 stabilisation at 450 ppm concludes that more than half of the SRES emissions scenarios leave this stabilisation target virtually out of reach as of 2020. A robust finding across such studies is that the probability of exceeding thresholds for specific key vulnerabilities or DAI increases with higher stabilisation levels for GHG concentrations.

Other studies quantify uncertainty using probability distributions for one or more parameters of the coupled social-natural system. Figure 19.1, for instance, depicts the likelihood of exceeding an equilibrium temperature threshold of 2°C above pre-industrial levels based on a range of published probability distributions for climate sensitivity. To render eventual exceedence of this exemplary threshold ‘unlikely’ (<33% chance), the CO2-equivalent stabilisation level must be below 410 ppm for the majority of considered climate sensitivity uncertainty distributions (range between 350 and 470 ppm).

Figure 19.1

Figure 19.1. Probability (see ‘Key caveat’ above on low confidence for specific quantitatitive results) of exceeding an equilibrium global warming of 2°C above pre-industrial (1.4°C above 1990 levels), for a range of CO2-equivalent stabilisation levels. Source: Hare and Meinshausen (2005).

Key caveat: The analysis in Figure 19.1 employs a number of probability distributions taken from the literature. The WGI AR4 has assessed the body of literature pertaining to climate sensitivity, and concludes that the climate sensitivity is ‘likely’ to lie in the range 2-4.5°C, and is ‘very likely’ to be above 1.5°C (Meehl et al., 2007 Executive Summary). For fundamental physical reasons, as well as data limitations, values substantially higher than 4.5°C still cannot be excluded, although agreement with observations and proxy data is generally worse for those high values than for values in the 2-4.5°C range (Meehl et al., 2007 Executive Summary). ‘Likely’ in IPCC usage has been defined as a 66 to 90% chance, and ‘very likely’ has been defined as a 90 to 99% chance. Therefore, implicit in the information given by WGI is a 10 to 34% chance that climate sensitivity is outside the ‘likely’ range, with equal probability (5 to 17%) that it is below 2°C or above 4.5°C. Furthermore, the WGI assessment assigns a 90 to 99% chance that the climate sensitivity is above 1.5°C. However, the shape of the distribution to the right of 4.5°C – crucial for risk-management analyses – is, as noted by WGI, so uncertain given the lack of scientific knowledge, that any quantitative conclusion reached based on probability functions beyond 4.5°C climate sensitivity would be very low confidence. For these reasons, we assign no more than low confidence to any of the distributions or results presented in this section, particularly if the result depends on the tails of the probabilty distribution for climate sensitivity. Nevertheless, as noted here, a risk-management framework requires input of (even if low-probability, low-confidence) outlier information. Therefore, we present the literature based on probabilistic analyses to demonstrate the framework inherent in the risk management approach to assessing key vulnerabilities.

The temperature threshold for DAI can itself be represented by a subjective probability distribution. Wigley (2004) combined probability distributions for climate sensitivity and the temperature threshold for DAI in order to construct a distribution for the CO2 stabilisation level required to avoid DAI. Under this assumption set, the median stabilisation level for atmospheric CO2 concentrations is 536 ppm, and there is a 17% chance that the stabilisation level necessary to avoid DAI is below current atmospheric CO2 levels. A similar analysis by Harvey (2006, 2007) added the explicit normative choice of an ‘acceptable’ probability (10%) for exceeding the probabilistic temperature threshold for DAI. With similar assumptions about the probability distributions for climate sensitivity and the DAI temperature threshold, he finds that the allowable CO2 stabilisation concentration is between 390 and 435 ppm, depending on assumptions about aerosol forcing. Of course, these results are quite sensitive to all the assumptions made, as both authors explicitly acknowledge.

Finally, significant differences in environmental impacts are anticipated between GHG concentration stabilisation trajectories that allow overshoot of the stabilisation concentration versus those that do not, even when they lead to the same final concentration. For example, Schneider and Mastrandrea (2005) calculate the probability of at least temporarily exceeding a target of 2°C above pre-industrial (1.4°C above ‘current’) by 2200 to be 70% higher (77% instead of 45%) for an overshoot scenario rising to 600 ppm CO2-equivalent and then stabilising in several centuries at 500 ppm CO2-equivalent, compared with a non-overshoot scenario stabilising at the same level (Figure 19.2, top panel). Overshoot scenarios induce higher transient temperature increases, increasing the probability of temporary or permanent exceedence of thresholds for key vulnerabilities or DAI (e.g, Hammitt and Shlyakhter, 1999; Harvey, 2004; O’Neill and Oppenheimer, 2004; Hare and Meinshausen, 2005; Knutti et al., 2005). With this in mind, Schneider and Mastrandrea (2005) suggested two metrics – maximum exceedence amplitude and degree years – for characterising the maximum and cumulative magnitude of overshoot of a temperature threshold for DAI, as shown for an illustrative scenario in Figure 19.2 (bottom panel). Since the rate of temperature rise is important to adaptive capacity (see Section 19.4.1) and thus impacts, the time delay between now and the date of occurrence of the maximum temperature (year of MEA on Figure 19.2b) is also relevant to the likelihood of creating key vulnerabilities or exceeding specified DAI thresholds.

Figure 19.2

Figure 19.2. Top panel: Probability of exceedence of a range of temperature thresholds for overshoot (OS500) and non-overshoot (SC500) scenarios, derived from probability distributions for climate sensitivity (see ‘Key caveat’ above on low confidence for specific quantitatitive results). OS500 Max is derived from the maximum overshoot temperature that occurs during the transient response before 2200, whereas OS500 in 2200 and SC500 in 2200 are derived from temperatures in 2200. While model-dependent, these results demonstrate the importance of considering transient temperature change when evaluating mitigation strategies to avoid key vulnerabilities. Bottom panel: Visualisation of maximum exceedence amplitude (MEA) and degree years (DY) for an illustrative overshoot temperature profile. Source: Schneider and Mastrandrea (2005).