Researchers say current models underestimate the effect of burning the world’s remaining fossil fuels.

While concerted efforts are going on around the world to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels and the impacts of their use, the low cost and ease of production means the ancient power source will be used for a while longer.

Burning the Earth’s remaining fossil fuel resources, equivalent to five trillion tonnes of CO2 emissions (5 EgC), could lead to an average temperature increase of about 8°C globally and 17°C in the Arctic by 2300, according to a paper published online this week in Nature Climate Change.

The study shows that the linear relationship between global warming and cumulative CO2 emissions holds up to 5 EgC, and suggests that, in the absence of mitigation, warming is likely to be considerably larger than previously anticipated.

The relationship between warming and cumulative CO2 emissions has previously been shown to be approximately linear up to 2 EgC, but simulations run using simple climate models suggest that this relationship breaks down at higher cumulative emissions.

Katarzyna Tokarska and colleagues used a set of comprehensive, complex Earth system models to simulate long-term warming in response to 5 EgC.

Their models show that warming continues to increase approximately linearly under high cumulative emissions, with an estimated global mean warming range between 6.4 and 9.5°C, and a mean Arctic warming ranging between 14.7 and 19.5°C.

In comparison, Earth system models that are not as comprehensive or complex show that there will be less warming, possibly due to the incorrect representation of certain processes and feedbacks, such as the efficiency of ocean heat uptake.

The models also suggest that 5 EgC will increase the average regional precipitation by more than a factor of four in the tropical Pacific, but lower it by more than a factor of two over parts of Australia, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and the Amazon, and by a factor of three in central America and North Africa.

“The work by Tokarska and colleagues highlights that the regulatory framework based on cumulative CO2 emissions is probably robust over a much wider range of plausible CO2 emissions than previously thought,” climate expert Thomas Frölicher says.

“This implies that the unregulated exploitation of fossil fuel resources could result in significant, more profound climate change.”