The response of the second-generation Canadian earth system model (CanESM2) to historical (1850–2005) and future (2006–2100) natural and anthropogenic forcing is assessed using the newly-developed representative concentration pathways (RCPs) of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and aerosols. Allowable emissions required to achieve the future atmospheric CO2 concentration pathways, are reported for the RCP 2.6, 4.5 and 8.5 scenarios. For the historical 1850–2005 period, cumulative land plus ocean carbon uptake and, consequently, cumulative diagnosed emissions compare well with observation-based estimates. The simulated historical carbon uptake is somewhat weaker for the ocean and stronger for the land relative to their observation-based estimates. The simulated historical warming of 0.9°C compares well with the observation-based estimate of 0.76 ± 0.19°C. The RCP 2.6, 4.5 and 8.5 scenarios respectively yield warmings of 1.4, 2.3, and 4.9°C and cumulative diagnosed fossil fuel emissions of 182, 643 and 1617 Pg C over the 2006–2100 period. The simulated warming of 2.3°C over the 1850–2100 period in the RCP 2.6 scenario, with the lowest concentration of GHGs, is slightly larger than the 2°C warming target set to avoid dangerous climate change by the 2009 UN Copenhagen Accord. The results of this study suggest that limiting warming to roughly 2°C by the end of this century is unlikely since it requires an immediate ramp down of emissions followed by ongoing carbon sequestration in the second half of this century.