WG I The Scientific Basis - Summary for Policy Makers

Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis

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Human influences will continue to change atmospheric composition throughout the 21st century.

Figure 5: The global climate of the 21st century will depend on natural changes and the response of the climate system to human activities.

Climate models project the response of many climate variables � such as increases in global surface temperature and sea level � to various scenarios of greenhouse gas and other human-related emissions. (a) shows the CO2 emissions of the six illustrative SRES scenarios, which are summarised in the box on page 18, along with IS92a for comparison purposes with the SAR. (b) shows projected CO2 concentrations. (c) shows anthropogenic SO2 emissions. Emissions of other gases and other aerosols were included in the model but are not shown in the figure. (d) and (e) show the projected temperature and sea level responses, respectively. The "several models all SRES envelope" in (d) and (e) shows the temperature and sea level rise, respectively, for the simple model when tuned to a number of complex models with a range of climate sensitivities. All SRES envelopes refer to the full range of 35 SRES scenarios. The "model average all SRES envelope" shows the average from these models for the range of scenarios. Note that the warming and sea level rise from these emissions would continue well beyond 2100. Also note that this range does not allow for uncertainty relating to ice dynamical changes in the West Antarctic ice sheet, nor does it account for uncertainties in projecting non-sulphate aerosols and greenhouse gas concentrations. [Based upon (a) Chapter 3, Figure 3.12, (b) Chapter 3, Figure 3.12, (c) Chapter 5, Figure 5.13, (d) Chapter 9, Figure 9.14, (e) Chapter 11, Figure 11.12, Appendix II
Models have been used to make projections of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols, and hence of future climate, based upon emissions scenarios from the IPCC Special Report on Emission Scenarios (SRES) (Figure 5). These scenarios were developed to update the IS92 series, which were used in the SAR and are shown for comparison here in some cases.

Greenhouse gases

  • Emissions of CO2 due to fossil fuel burning are virtually certain7 to be the dominant influence on the trends in atmospheric CO2 concentration during the 21st century.
  • As the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere increases, ocean and land will take up a decreasing fraction of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. The net effect of land and ocean climate feedbacks as indicated by models is to further increase projected atmospheric CO2 concentrations, by reducing both the ocean and land uptake of CO2.
  • By 2100, carbon cycle models project atmospheric CO2 concentrations of 540 to 970 ppm for the illustrative SRES scenarios (90 to 250% above the concentration of 280 ppm in the year 1750), Figure 5b. These projections include the land and ocean climate feedbacks. Uncertainties, especially about the magnitude of the climate feedback from the terrestrial biosphere, cause a variation of about -10 to +30% around each scenario. The total range is 490 to 1260 ppm (75 to 350% above the 1750 concentration).
  • Changing land use could influence atmospheric CO2 concentration. Hypothetically, if all of the carbon released by historical land-use changes could be restored to the terrestrial biosphere over the course of the century (e.g., by reforestation), CO2 concentration would be reduced by 40 to 70 ppm.
  • Model calculations of the concentrations of the non-CO2 greenhouse gases by 2100 vary considerably across the SRES illustrative scenarios, with CH4 changing by �190 to +1,970 ppb (present concentration 1,760 ppb), N2O changing by +38 to +144 ppb (present concentration 316 ppb), total tropospheric O3 changing by -12 to +62%, and a wide range of changes in concentrations of HFCs, PFCs and SF6, all relative to the year 2000. In some scenarios, total tropospheric O3 would become as important a radiative forcing agent as CH4 and, over much of the Northern Hemisphere, would threaten the attainment of current air quality targets.
  • Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and the gases that control their concentration would be necessary to stabilise radiative forcing. For example, for the most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas, carbon cycle models indicate that stabilisation of atmospheric CO2 concentrations at 450, 650 or 1,000 ppm would require global anthropogenic CO2 emissions to drop below 1990 levels, within a few decades, about a century, or about two centuries, respectively, and continue to decrease steadily thereafter. Eventually CO2 emissions would need to decline to a very small fraction of current emissions.


  • The SRES scenarios include the possibility of either increases or decreases in anthropogenic aerosols (e.g., sulphate aerosols (Figure 5c), biomass aerosols, black and organic carbon aerosols) depending on the extent of fossil fuel use and policies to abate polluting emissions. In addition, natural aerosols (e.g., sea salt, dust and emissions leading to the production of sulphate and carbon aerosols) are projected to increase as a result of changes in climate.

Radiative forcing over the 21st century

  • For the SRES illustrative scenarios, relative to the year 2000, the global mean radiative forcing due to greenhouse gases continues to increase through the 21st century, with the fraction due to CO2 projected to increase from slightly more than half to about three quarters. The change in the direct plus indirect aerosol radiative forcing is projected to be smaller in magnitude than that of CO2.

Global average temperature and sea level are projected to rise under all IPCC SRES scenarios.

In order to make projections of future climate, models incorporate past, as well as future emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols. Hence, they include estimates of warming to date and the commitment to future warming from past emissions.


  • The globally averaged surface temperature is projected to increase by 1.4 to 5.8°C (Figure 5d) over the period 1990 to 2100. These results are for the full range of 35 SRES scenarios, based on a number of climate models10, 11.
  • Temperature increases are projected to be greater than those in the SAR, which were about 1.0 to 3.5°C based on the six IS92 scenarios. The higher projected temperatures and the wider range are due primarily to the lower projected sulphur dioxide emissions in the SRES scenarios relative to the IS92 scenarios.
  • The projected rate of warming is much larger than the observed changes during the 20th century and is very likely7 to be without precedent during at least the last 10,000 years, based on palaeoclimate data.
  • By 2100, the range in the surface temperature response across the group of climate models run with a given scenario is comparable to the range obtained from a single model run with the different SRES scenarios.
  • On timescales of a few decades, the current observed rate of warming can be used to constrain the projected response to a given emissions scenario despite uncertainty in climate sensitivity. This approach suggests that anthropogenic warming is likely7 to lie in the range of 0.1 to 0.2°C per decade over the next few decades under the IS92a scenario, similar to the corresponding range of projections of the simple model used in Figure 5d.
  • Based on recent global model simulations, it is very likely7 that nearly all land areas will warm more rapidly than the global average, particularly those at northern high latitudes in the cold season. Most notable of these is the warming in the northern regions of North America, and northern and central Asia, which exceeds global mean warming in each model by more than 40%. In contrast, the warming is less than the global mean change in south and southeast Asia in summer and in southern South America in winter.
  • Recent trends for surface temperature to become more El Niño-like in the tropical Pacific, with the eastern tropical Pacific warming more than the western tropical Pacific, with a corresponding eastward shift of precipitation, are projected to continue in many models.


  • Based on global model simulations and for a wide range of scenarios, global average water vapour concentration and precipitation are projected to increase during the 21st century. By the second half of the 21st century, it is likely7 that precipitation will have increased over northern mid- to high latitudes and Antarctica in winter. At low latitudes there are both regional increases and decreases over land areas. Larger year to year variations in precipitation are very likely7 over most areas where an increase in mean precipitation is projected.

Extreme Events

Table 1 depicts an assessment of confidence in observed changes in extremes of weather and climate during the latter half of the 20th century (left column) and in projected changes during the 21st century (right column)a. This assessment relies on observational and modelling studies, as well as the physical
plausibility of future projections across all commonly-used scenarios and is based on expert judgement 7.

  • For some other extreme phenomena, many of which may have important impacts on the environment and society, there is currently insufficient information to assess recent trends, and climate models currently lack the spatial detail required to make confident projections. For example, very
    small-scale phenomena, such as thunderstorms, tornadoes, hail and lightning, are not simulated in climate models.
Table 1: Estimates of confidence in observed and projected changes in extreme weather and climate events.
Confidence in observed changes
(latter half of the 20th century)
Changes in Phenomenon Confidence in projected changes
(during the 21st century)
Likely7 Higher maximum temperatures and more hot days over nearly all land areas Very likely7
Very likely7 Higher minimum temperatures, fewer cold days and frost days over nearly all land areas Very likely7
Very likely7 Reduced diurnal temperature range over most land areas Very likely7
Likely7, over many areas Increase of heat index12 over land areas Very likely7, over most areas
Likely7, over many Northern Hemisphere mid- to high latitude land areas More intense precipitation events b Very likely7, over most areas
Likely7, in a few areas Increased summer continental drying and associated risk of drought Likely7, over most mid-latitude continental interiors. (Lack of consistent projections in other areas)
Not observed in the few analyses available Increase in tropical cyclone peak wind intensities c Likely7, over some areas
Insufficient data for assessment Increase in tropical cyclone mean and peak precipitation intensities c Likely7, over some areas
a For more details see Chapter 2 (observations) and Chapter 9, 10 (projections).
b For other areas, there are either insufficient data or conflicting analyses.
c Past and future changes in tropical cyclone location and frequency are uncertain.

El Niño

  • Confidence in projections of changes in future frequency, amplitude, and spatial pattern of El Niño events in the tropical Pacific is tempered by some shortcomings in how well El Niño is simulated in complex models. Current projections show little change or a small increase in amplitude for El Niño events over the next 100 years.
  • Even with little or no change in El Niño amplitude, global warming is likely7 to lead to greater extremes of drying and heavy rainfall and increase the risk of droughts and floods that occur with El Niño events in many different regions.


  • It is likely 7 that warming associated with increasing greenhouse gas concentrations will cause an increase of Asian summer monsoon precipitation variability. Changes in monsoon mean duration and strength depend on the details of the emission scenario. The confidence in such projections is also limited by how well the climate models simulate the detailed seasonal evolution of the monsoons.

Thermohaline circulation

  • Most models show weakening of the ocean thermohaline circulation which leads to a reduction of the heat transport into high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. However, even in models where the thermohaline circulation weakens, there is still a warming over Europe due to increased greenhouse gases. The current projections using climate models do not exhibit a complete shut-down of the thermohaline circulation by 2100. Beyond 2100, the thermohaline circulation could completely, and possibly irreversibly, shut-down in either hemisphere if the change in radiative forcing is large enough and applied long enough.

Snow and ice

  • Northern Hemisphere snow cover and sea-ice extent are projected to decrease further.
  • Glaciers and ice caps are projected to continue their widespread retreat during the 21st century.
  • The Antarctic ice sheet is likely 7 to gain mass because of greater precipitation, while the Greenland ice sheet is likely7 to lose mass because the increase in runoff will exceed the precipitation increase.
  • Concerns have been expressed about the stability of the West Antarctic ice sheet because it is grounded below sea level. However, loss of grounded ice leading to substantial sea level rise from this source is now widely agreed to be very unlikely 7 during the 21st century, although its dynamics are still inadequately understood, especially for projections on longer time-scales.

Sea level

  • Global mean sea level is projected to rise by 0.09 to 0.88 metres between 1990 and 2100, for the full range of SRES scenarios. This is due primarily to thermal expansion and loss of mass from glaciers and ice caps (Figure 5e). The range of sea level rise presented in the SAR was 0.13 to 0.94 metres based on the IS92 scenarios. Despite the higher temperature change projections in this assessment, the sea level projections are slightly lower, primarily due to the use of improved models, which give a smaller contribution from glaciers and ice sheets.

Anthropogenic climate change will persist for many centuries.

  • Emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases (i.e., CO2, N2O, PFCs, SF6) have a lasting effect on atmospheric composition, radiative forcing and climate. For example, several centuries after CO2 emissions occur, about a quarter of the increase in CO2 concentration caused by these emissions is still present in the atmosphere.
  • After greenhouse gas concentrations have stabilised, global average surface temperatures would rise at a rate of only a few tenths of a degree per century rather than several degrees per century as projected for the 21st century without stabilisation. The lower the level at which concentrations are stabilised, the smaller the total temperature change.
  • Global mean surface temperature increases and rising sea level from thermal expansion of the ocean are projected to continue for hundreds of years after stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations (even at present levels), owing to the long timescales on which the deep ocean adjusts to climate change.
  • Ice sheets will continue to react to climate warming and contribute to sea level rise for thousands of years after climate has been stabilised. Climate models indicate that the local warming over Greenland is likely7 to be one to three times the global average. Ice sheet models project that a local warming of larger than 3°C, if sustained for millennia, would lead to virtually a complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet with a resulting sea level rise of about 7 metres. A local warming of 5.5°C, if sustained for 1,000 years, would be likely7 to result in a contribution from Greenland of about 3 metres to sea level rise.
  • Current ice dynamic models suggest that the West Antarctic ice sheet could contribute up to 3 metres to sea level rise over the next 1,000 years, but such results are strongly dependent on model assumptions regarding climate change scenarios, ice dynamics and other factors.

Further action is required to address remaining gaps in information and understanding.

Further research is required to improve the ability to detect, attribute and understand climate change, to reduce uncertainties and to project future climate changes. In particular, there is a need for additional systematic and sustained observations, modelling and process studies. A serious concern is the decline
of observational networks. The following are high priority areas for action.

  • Systematic observations and reconstructions:
    • Reverse the decline of observational networks in many parts of the world.
    • Sustain and expand the observational foundation for climate studies by providing accurate, long-term, consistent data including implementation of a strategy for integrated global observations.
    • Enhance the development of reconstructions of past climate periods.
    • Improve the observations of the spatial distribution of greenhouse gases and aerosols.
  • Modelling and process studies:
    • Improve understanding of the mechanisms and factors leading to changes in radiative forcing.
    • Understand and characterise the important unresolved processes and feedbacks, both physical and biogeochemical, in the climate system.
    • Improve methods to quantify uncertainties of climate projections and scenarios, including long-term ensemble simulations using complex models.
    • Improve the integrated hierarchy of global and regional climate models with a focus on the simulation of climate variability, regional climate changes and extreme events.
    • Link more effectively models of the physical climate and the biogeochemical system, and in turn improve coupling with descriptions of human activities.

Cutting across these foci are crucial needs associated with strengthening international co-operation and co-ordination in order to better utilise scientific, computational and observational resources. This should also promote the free exchange of data among scientists. A special need is to increase the observational and research capacities in many regions, particularly in developing countries. Finally, as is the goal of this assessment, there is a continuing imperative to communicate research advances in terms that are relevant to decision making.

The Emissions Scenarios of the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES)

A1. The A1 storyline and scenario family describes a future world of very rapid economic growth, global population that peaks in mid-century and declines thereafter, and the rapid introduction of new and more efficient technologies. Major underlying themes are convergence among regions, capacity building and increased cultural and social interactions, with a substantial reduction in regional differences in per capita income. The A1 scenario family develops into three groups that describe alternative directions of technological change in the energy system. The three A1 groups are distinguished by their technological emphasis: fossil intensive (A1FI), non-fossil energy sources (A1T), or a balance across all sources (A1B) (where balanced is defined as not relying too heavily on one particular energy source, on the assumption that similar improvement rates apply to all energy supply and end use technologies).

A2. The A2 storyline and scenario family describes a very heterogeneous world. The underlying theme is self-reliance and preservation of local identities. Fertility patterns across regions converge very slowly, which results in continuously increasing population. Economic development is primarily regionally oriented and per capita economic growth and technological change more fragmented and slower than other storylines.

B1. The B1 storyline and scenario family describes a convergent world with the same global population, that peaks in midcentury and declines thereafter, as in the A1 storyline, but with rapid change in economic structures toward a service and information economy, with reductions in material intensity and the introduction of clean and resource-efficient technologies. The emphasis is on global solutions to economic, social and environmental sustainability, including improved equity, but without additional climate initiatives.

B2. The B2 storyline and scenario family describes a world in which the emphasis is on local solutions to economic, social and environmental sustainability. It is a world with continuously increasing global population, at a rate lower than A2, intermediate levels of economic evelopment, and less rapid and more diverse technological change than in the B1 and A1 storylines. While the scenario is also oriented towards environmental protection and social equity, it focuses on local and regional levels.

An illustrative scenario was chosen for each of the six scenario groups A1B, A1FI, A1T, A2, B1 and B2. All should be considered equally sound.

The SRES scenarios do not include additional climate initiatives, which means that no scenarios are included that explicitly assume implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or the emissions targets of the Kyoto Protocol.

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