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Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of...

Garrett, T. (2011), Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide?, Climatic Change, 104, 437-455.

Global Circulation Models (GCMs) provide projections for future climate warming using a wide variety of highly sophisticated anthropogenic CO2 emissions scenarios as input, each based on the evolution of four emissions “drivers”: population p, standard of living g, energy productivity (or efficiency) f and energy carbonization c (IPCC WG III 2007). The range of scenarios considered is extremely broad, however, and this is a primary source of forecast uncertainty (Stott and Kettleborough, Nature 416:723–725, 2002). Here, it is shown both theoretically and observationally how the evolution of the human system can be considered from a surprisingly simple thermodynamic perspective in which it is unnecessary to explicitly model two of the emissions drivers: population and standard of living. Specifically, the human system grows through a self-perpetuating feedback loop in which the consumption rate of primary energy resources stays tied to the historical accumulation of global economic production—or p × g—through a time-independent factor of 9.7 ± 0.3 mW per inflation-adjusted 1990 US dollar. This important constraint, and the fact that f and c have historically varied rather slowly, points towards substantially narrowed visions of future emissions scenarios for implementation in GCMs.

Research Program: 
Radiation Science Program (RSP)