Here's What Earth Might Look Like In 100 Years – If We're Lucky

A girl recycles plastic and glass. Timothy Takemoto/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

America Recycles Day is on Thursday. The green holiday exists for good reason: Recycling helps keep rubbish off the roads, reduces the need for Earth-scarring mining operations, and creates jobs.

The practice also keeps planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the air. Every ton of recycled aluminum cans (about 64,000 of them) keeps 10 tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, according to Popular Mechanics.

But recycling is no panacea for climate change.

If we hope to limit some of the disastrous effects of climate change, we must make drastic cuts — and soon — to greenhouse gas emissions in electricity production, transportation, industrial work, farming, and other sectors.

"There's no stopping global warming," Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist who is the director of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, previously told Business Insider. "Everything that's happened so far is baked into the system."

That means that even if carbon emissions were to drop to zero tomorrow, we'd still be watching human-driven climate change play out for centuries. Even then, emissions aren't going to stop immediately. The key thing now, Schmidt said, is to slow climate change down enough to allow us to adapt as painlessly as possible.

In 2016, planet Earth's temperature averaged 1.26 degrees Celsius above preindustrial averages, which is dangerously close to the 1.5-degree-Celsius limit set by international policymakers in the Paris climate accord.

Not exceeding that limit will be significantly more challenging, since President Donald Trump — who previously called climate change "a hoax" — plans to withdraw the US from the accord. (His globally denounced decision came after the hottest year the world has ever seen since scientists started keeping global temperature records in 1880.)

But if we manage to pull together as a planet and succeed in curbing global emissions, this is a somewhat optimistic look what the Earth could look like within 100 years.

"I think the 1.5-degree target is out of reach as a long-term goal," Schmidt said. He estimated that we will blow past that by about 2030. But Schmidt is more optimistic about keeping temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. That's the increase the UN hopes to avoid.

This may be a point of no return: Researchers now worry that, beyond 2 degrees C increase, we may tip the balance of our planet's systems toward a "hothouse Earth" scenario in which temperatures unassailably rise to 4 or 5 degrees.

Earth from space as seen by Apollo 8 astronauts.NASA

Sources: Business Insider (1, 2)

Let's assume — optimistically — that we land somewhere between the targets 1.5 and 2 degrees C of temperature rise. At the end of this century, we'd be looking at a world that is on average about 3 degrees Fahrenheit above where we are now.

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