Records of the geological past show that ecosystems have some capacity to adapt naturally to climate change [WGI AR4 Chapter 6; 4.2], but this resilience has never been challenged by a large global human population and its multi-faceted demands from and pressures on ecosystems [4.1, 4.2].
The resilience of many ecosystems (their ability to adapt naturally) is likely to be exceeded by 2100 by an unprecedented combination of change in climate, associated disturbances (e.g., flooding, drought, wildfire, insects, ocean acidification), and other global change drivers (e.g., land-use change, pollution, over-exploitation of resources) (high confidence).
Ecosystems are very likely to be exposed to atmospheric CO2 levels much higher than in the past 650,000 years, and global mean temperatures at least as high as those in the past 740,000 years [WGI AR4 Chapter 6; 4.2, 4.4.10, 4.4.11]. By 2100, ocean pH is very likely to be lower than during the last 20 million years [4.4.9]. Extractive use from and fragmentation of wild habitats are very likely to impair species’ adaptation [4.1.2, 4.1.3, 4.2, 4.4.5, 4.4.10]. Exceedance of ecosystem resilience is very likely to be characterised by threshold-type responses, many irreversible on time-scales relevant to human society, such as biodiversity loss through extinction, disruption of species’ ecological interactions, and major changes in ecosystem structure and disturbance regimes (especially wildfire and insects) (see Figure TS.6). Key ecosystem properties (e.g., biodiversity) or regulating services (e.g., carbon sequestration) are very likely to be impaired [4.2, 4.4.1, 4.4.2 to 4.4.9, 4.4.10, 4.4.11, F4.4, T4.1].
Figure TS.6. Compendium of projected risks due to critical climate change impacts on ecosystems for different levels of global mean annual temperature rise, ∆T, relative to pre-industrial climate, used as a proxy for climate change. The red curve shows observed temperature anomalies for the period 1900-2005 [WGI AR4 F3.6]. The two grey curves provide examples of the possible future evolution of global average temperature change (∆T) with time [WGI AR4 F10.4] exemplified by WGI simulated, multi-model mean responses to (i) the A2 radiative forcing scenario (WGI A2) and (ii) an extended B1 scenario (WGI B1+stabil.), where radiative forcing beyond 2100 was kept constant at the 2100 value [WGI AR4 F10.4, 10.7]. White shading indicates neutral, small negative, or positive impacts or risks; yellow indicates negative impacts for some systems or low risks; and red indicates negative impacts or risks that are more widespread and/or greater in magnitude. Illustrated impacts take into account climate change impacts only, and omit effects of land-use change or habitat fragmentation, over-harvesting or pollution (e.g., nitrogen deposition). A few, however, take into account fire regime changes, several account for likely productivity-enhancing effects of rising atmospheric CO2 and some account for migration effects. [F4.4, T4.1]
The terrestrial biosphere is likely to become a net carbon source by 2100, thus amplifying climate change, given continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates and other unmitigated global changes, such as land-use changes (high confidence).
Several major terrestrial carbon stocks are vulnerable to climate change and/or land-use impacts [F4.1, 4.4.1, F4.2, 4.4.5, 4.4.6, 4.4.10, F4.3]. The terrestrial biosphere currently serves as a variable, but generally increasing, carbon sink (due to CO2-fertilisation, moderate climate change and other effects) but this is likely to peak before mid-century and then tend towards a net carbon source, thus amplifying climate change [F4.2, 4.4.1, 4.4.10, F4.3, 4.4.11], while ocean buffering capacity begins saturating [WGI AR4, e.g., 7.3.5]. This is likely to occur before 2100, assuming continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates and unmitigated global change drivers including land-use changes, notably tropical deforestation. Methane emissions from tundra are likely to accelerate [4.4.6].
Roughly 20 to 30% (varying among regional biotas from 1% to 80%) of species assessed so far (in an unbiased sample) are likely to be at increasingly high risk of extinction as global mean temperatures exceed 2 to 3°C above pre-industrial levels (medium confidence).
Global losses of biodiversity are of key relevance, being irreversible [4.4.10, 4.4.11, F4.4, T4.1]. Endemic species richness is highest where regional palaeo-climatic changes have been muted, indicating that endemics are likely to be at a greater extinction risk than in the geological past [4.4.5, 4.4.11, F4.4, T4.1]. Ocean acidification is likely to impair aragonite-based shell formation in a wide range of planktonic and shallow benthic marine organisms [4.4.9, B4.4]. Conservation practices are generally ill-prepared for climate change, and effective adaptation responses are likely to be costly to implement [4.4.11, T4.1, 4.6.1]. Although links between biodiversity intactness and ecosystem services remain quantitatively uncertain, there is high confidence that the relationship is qualitatively positive [4.1, 4.4.11, 4.6, 4.8].
Substantial changes in structure and functioning of terrestrial and marine ecosystems are very likely to occur with a global warming of 2 to 3°C above pre-industrial levels and associated increased atmospheric CO2 (high confidence).
Major biome changes, including emergence of novel biomes, and changes in species’ ecological interactions, with predominantly negative consequences for goods and services, are very likely by, and virtually certain beyond, those temperature increases [4.4]. The previously overlooked progressive acidification of oceans due to increasing atmospheric CO2 is expected to have negative impacts on marine shell-forming organisms (e.g., corals) and their dependent species [B4.4, 6.4].