Delays in cutting greenhouse gasses could harm environment

Successful efforts to stabilize the level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere could still result in serious ecological damage if the cutbacks do not begin soon enough, according to a new analysis.

Scientists Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University and Brian O'Neill of Brown University studied various strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, comparing plans that begin reductions right away and others that delay action and make a more intensive effort later. Even if they ultimately reach the same target level of greenhouse gasses, the plans would have dramatically different environmental consequences, the scientists found.

"Delay inevitably means more warming and faster warming," said Oppenheimer. "And that could be detrimental not just to ecosystems, but to major elements of the climate system."

In one scenario, for example, two different paths to the same goal could mean the difference between widespread loss of the world's coral reefs and more limited damage. Other scenarios could involve the difference between the disintegration or the stability of major ice sheets in Antarctica or Greenland, which would dramatically affect sea level.

The researchers reported their findings in a paper to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Oppenheimer is Princeton's Albert Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs. O'Neill holds appointments at Brown and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria.

A dominant assumption in climate change research has been that there is an economic advantage to delaying action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, said Oppenheimer. One benefit to waiting is that new clean-energy technologies are likely to have been developed, so they could be deployed more intensively at less cost than today's technologies. Also, a general economic principle dictates that expenses delayed to the future are preferable to expenses made today,

Contact: Steven Schultz
Princeton University

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