IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

TS.5.4 Coupling Between Climate Change and Changes in Biogeochemical Cycles

All models that treat the coupling of the carbon cycle to climate change indicate a positive feedback effect with warming acting to suppress land and ocean uptake of CO2, leading to larger atmospheric CO2 increases and greater climate change for a given emissions scenario, but the strength of this feedback effect varies markedly among models. Since the TAR, several new projections based on fully coupled carbon cycle-climate models have been performed and compared. For the SRES A2 scenario, and based on a range of model results, the projected increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration over the 21st century is likely between 10 and 25% higher than projections without this feedback, adding more than 1°C to projected mean warming by 2100 for higher emission SRES scenarios. Correspondingly, the reduced CO2 uptake caused by this effect reduces the CO2 emissions that are consistent with a target stabilisation level. However, there are still significant uncertainties due, for example, to limitations in the understanding of the dynamics of land ecosystems and soils. {7.3, 10.4}

Increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations lead directly to increasing acidification of the surface ocean. Projections based on SRES scenarios give reductions in pH of between 0.14 and 0.35 units in the 21st century (depending on scenario), extending the present decrease of 0.1 units from pre-industrial times. Ocean acidification would lead to dissolution of shallow-water carbonate sediments. Southern Ocean surface waters are projected to exhibit undersaturation with regard to calcium carbonate (CaCO3) for CO2 concentrations higher than 600 ppm, a level exceeded during the second half of the 21st century in most of the SRES scenarios. Low-latitude regions and the deep ocean will be affected as well. These changes could affect marine organisms that form their exoskeletons out of CaCO3, but the net effect on the biological cycling of carbon in the oceans is not well understood. {Box 7.3, 10.4}

Committed climate change due to past emissions varies considerably for different forcing agents because of differing lifetimes in the Earth’s atmosphere (see Box TS.9). The committed climate change due to past emissions takes account of both (i) the time lags in the responses of the climate system to changes in radiative forcing; and (ii) the time scales over which different forcing agents persist in the atmosphere after their emission because of their differing lifetimes. Typically the committed climate change due to past emissions includes an initial period of further increase in temperature, for the reasons discussed above, followed by a long-term decrease as radiative forcing decreases. Some greenhouse gases have relatively short atmospheric lifetimes (decades or less), such as CH4 and carbon monoxide, while others such as N2O have lifetimes of the order of a century, and some have lifetimes of millennia, such as SF6 and PFCs. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 do not decay with a single well-defined lifetime if emissions are stopped. Removal of CO2 emitted to the atmosphere occurs over multiple time scales, but some CO2 will stay in the atmosphere for many thousands of years, so that emissions lead to a very long commitment to climate change. The slow long-term buffering of the ocean, including CaCO3-sediment feedback, requires 30,000 to 35,000 years for atmospheric CO2 concentrations to reach equilibrium. Using coupled carbon cycle components, EMICs show that the committed climate change due to past CO2 emissions persists for more than 1000 years, so that even over these very long time scales, temperature and sea level do not return to pre-industrial values. An indication of the long time scales of committed climate change is obtained by prescribing anthropogenic CO2 emissions following a path towards stabilisation at 750 ppm, but arbitrarily setting emissions to zero at year 2100. In this test case, it takes about 100 to 400 years in the different models for the atmospheric CO2 concentration to drop from the maximum (ranges between 650 to 700 ppm) to below the level of two times the pre-industrial CO2 concentration (about 560 ppm), owing to a continuous but slow transfer of carbon from the atmosphere and terrestrial reservoirs to the ocean (see Figure TS.31). {7.3, 10.7}

Climate Change Commitment

Figure TS.31

Figure TS.31. Calculation of climate change commitment due to past emissions for five different EMICs and an idealised scenario where emissions follow a pathway leading to stabilisation of atmospheric CO2 at 750 ppm, but before reaching this target, emissions are reduced to zero instantly at year 2100. (Left) CO2 emissions and atmospheric CO2 concentrations; (centre) surface warming and sea level rise due to thermal expansion; (right) change in total terrestrial and oceanic carbon inventory since the pre-industrial era. {Figure 10.35}

Future concentrations of many non-CO2 greenhouse gases and their precursors are expected to be coupled to future climate change. Insufficient understanding of the causes of recent variations in the CH4 growth rate suggests large uncertainties in future projections for this gas in particular. Emissions of CH4 from wetlands are likely to increase in a warmer and wetter climate and to decrease in a warmer and drier climate. Observations also suggest increases in CH4 released from northern peatlands that are experiencing permafrost melt, although the large-scale magnitude of this effect is not well quantified. Changes in temperature, humidity and clouds could also affect biogenic emissions of ozone precursors, such as volatile organic compounds. Climate change is also expected to affect tropospheric ozone through changes in chemistry and transport. Climate change could induce changes in OH through changes in humidity, and could alter stratospheric ozone concentrations and hence solar ultraviolet radiation in the troposphere. {7.4, 4.7}

Future emissions of many aerosols and their precursors are expected to be affected by climate change. Estimates of future changes in dust emissions under several climate and land use scenarios suggest that the effects of climate change are more important in controlling future dust emissions than changes in land use. Results from one study suggest that meteorology and climate have a greater influence on future Asian dust emissions and associated Asian dust storm occurrences than desertification. The biogenic emission of volatile organic compounds, a significant source of secondary organic aerosols, is known to be highly sensitive to (and increase with) temperature. However, aerosol yields decrease with temperature and the effects of changing precipitation and physiological adaptation are uncertain. Thus, change in biogenic secondary organic aerosol production in a warmer climate could be considerably lower than the response of biogenic volatile organic carbon emissions. Climate change may affect fluxes from the ocean of dimethyl sulphide (which is a precursor for some sulphate aerosols) and sea salt aerosols, however, the effects on temperature and precipitation remain very uncertain. {7.5}

While the warming effect of CO2 represents a commitment over many centuries, aerosols are removed from the atmosphere over time scales of only a few days, so that the negative radiative forcing due to aerosols could change rapidly in response to any changes in emissions of aerosols or aerosol precursors. Because sulphate aerosols are very likely exerting a substantial negative radiative forcing at present, future net forcing is very sensitive to changes in sulphate emissions. One study suggests that the hypothetical removal from the atmosphere of the entire current burden of anthropogenic sulphate aerosol particles would produce a rapid increase in global mean temperature of about 0.8°C within a decade or two. Changes in aerosols are also likely to influence precipitation. Thus, the effect of environmental strategies aimed at mitigating climate change requires consideration of changes in both greenhouse gas and aerosol emissions. Changes in aerosol emissions may result from measures implemented to improve air quality which may therefore have consequences for climate change. {Box 7.4, 7.6, 10.7}

Climate change would modify a number of chemical and physical processes that control air quality and the net effects are likely to vary from one region to another. Climate change can affect air quality by modifying the rates at which pollutants are dispersed, the rate at which aerosols and soluble species are removed from the atmosphere, the general chemical environment for pollutant generation and the strength of emissions from the biosphere, fires and dust. Climate change is also expected to decrease the global ozone background. Overall, the net effect of climate change on air quality is highly uncertain. {Box 7.4}