Avoiding climate catastrophe will probably require going to near-zero net emissions of greenhouse gases this century. That is the conclusion of a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters (subs. req’d) co-authored by one of my favorite climate scientists, Ken Caldeira, whose papers always merit attention. Here is the abstract:

Current international climate mitigation efforts aim to stabilize levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, human-induced climate warming will continue for many centuries, even after atmospheric CO2 levels are stabilized. In this paper, we assess the CO2 emissions requirements for global temperature stabilization within the next several centuries, using an Earth system model of intermediate complexity. We show first that a single pulse of carbon released into the atmosphere increases globally averaged surface temperature by an amount that remains approximately constant for several centuries, even in the absence of additional emissions. We then show that to hold climate constant at a given global temperature requires near-zero future carbon emissions. Our results suggest that future anthropogenic emissions would need to be eliminated in order to stabilize global-mean temperatures. As a consequence, any future anthropogenic emissions will commit the climate system to warming that is essentially irreversible on centennial timescales.

Since the rest of the article is behind a firewall, let me extract a couple of key findings:

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… our results suggest that if emissions were eliminated entirely, radiative forcing from atmospheric CO2 would decrease at a rate closely matched by declining ocean heat uptake, with the result that while future warming commitment may be negligible, atmospheric temperatures may not decrease appreciably for at least 500 years.

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In short, the time for dramatic action is upon us. The study concludes:

In the absence of human intervention to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere, each unit of CO2 emissions must be viewed as leading to quantifiable and essentially permanent climate change on centennial timescales. We emphasize that a stable global climate is not synonymous with stable radiative forcing, but rather requires decreasing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. We have shown here that stable global temperatures within the next several centuries can be achieved if CO2 emissions are reduced to nearly zero. This means that avoiding future human-induced climate warming may require policies that seek not only to decrease CO2 emissions, but to eliminate them entirely.

Bottom line: Stopping global warming is very hard — easily the greatest challenge the human race has ever faced. The best we can hope for at this point is to limit warming to below the threshold where the carbon-cycle feedbacks kick into overdrive, bringing about catastrophe (80 feet of sea level rise, widespread desertification, greater than 50 percent species loss).

In all likelihood, we need to cut emissions deeply and quickly enough that we get to the point this century where we can actually have net negative emissions, by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while emitting almost none.

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This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.