'Future world' scenarios to paint a clearer climate change picture
An EU-funded project's 'future world' scenarios are informing the development of innovative tools and measures to help vulnerable communities plan for, and adapt to, the effects of global warming - such as increased flooding, wild fires and extreme weather.
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Although the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement committed countries to limiting global warming well below 2°C, cuts in emissions pledged to date do not go far enough to achieve this goal, according to the EU-funded HELIX project. Even the tiniest deficit can make a big difference, especially to vulnerable populations such as small island states.
HELIX was created to help scientists and policymakers better understand the consequences of temperature rises in various future world scenarios, covering different regions and global climate conditions.
The projects scenarios take the 2°C figure as the baseline temperature rise for examining the impact of global climate change, paying special attention to scenarios for Europe, Africa, and South Asia.
The researchers analysed not only physical consequences like droughts, flood risk and reduced biodiversity, but also how rising temperatures could impact human health and well-being, economies and societal issues such as as migration and security.
We know climate change poses serious risks, says project coordinator Richard Betts, a professor at Exeter University in the UK. While the Paris Agreement shows that most nations are committed to tackling it, there are still many challenges in doing so. As well as finding effective and affordable ways to minimise human impact on climate, the world will also need to adapt to changes that are already locked in. Our findings on flood damage, sea-level rises and their impacts provide a basis for assessing risks we wish to avoid, and adapting to those we cannot avoid.
HELIXs scenarios also looked at potential opportunities that climate change could open up for water and food security, which informs policymaking in areas such as international development and long-term infrastructure planning.
Our research on the range of potential impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity may contribute to policy and long-term planning on conservation as well, adds Betts.
Earth, wind and fire
A summer of record-breaking storms and damage means better planning is now essential to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, help vulnerable states adapt to new realities, and guide authorities as they prepare for violent weather extremes, from floods and fires to hurricanes.
But this level of planning relies on accurate information and/or the best predictions of what can happen and what is needed to deal with that. While a vast array of projections, scenarios and estimates of future climate change and its impacts already existed, much of it was conflicting, unclear and unhelpful as a basis for decision-making.
Research like HELIX drives forward innovative technologies and actions for adapting to new and future scenarios. Vulnerability can be reduced by building strong, fair and resilient societies, and developing nature-based solutions. Well-designed climate adaptation actions can also have wider benefits for human health, the economy and biodiversity. These sorts of issues were recently explored at ECCA 2017, Our climate-ready future, an event co-hosted by HELIX together with EU-funded projects RISES-AM and IMPRESSIONS.
So, what will a warmer world look like? What impacts can be avoided, and what can we do to adapt to the unavoidable consequences?
A 4°C rise in temperature could mean the flood risk could increase by 500 % in countries representing 70 % of the worlds GDP and population. With a 2°C temperature increase, the affected population and related flood damage could rise by 170 % compared to present levels.
Even under an optimistic scenario of a 1.5°C temperature increase, the flood-affected population could still double, with damage increasing by 12 %.
Trying to predict the future is always challenging, but with advances in science, and innovative approaches, we are able to look at a range of plausible climate change scenarios consistent with global warming at between 2°C and 4°C, and even up to 6°C, says Betts.
The HELIX team made this prediction by studying high-resolution climate projections and simulations, along with the frequency and magnitude of river floods and their expected impacts under these future scenarios.
The result is essentially a global assessment of the economic costs and the populations affected by river flooding under different global warming scenarios. This could feed into future debates at the global level on strategies to address climate change, such as the IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, to be released in 2018.
By communicating our research, we are keen to boost public understanding of science relating to climate change and help decision-makers formulate well-informed climate policy on the pressing issues, concludes Betts.