Stanford's Field says 1.5 C climate target may be impossible

As countries work to strike a balance between climate adaptation and mitigation efforts, how could unknown factors affect the path forward? During today's OnPoint, Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and former co-chairman of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, discusses the primary goals ahead of the 22nd Conference of the Parties and the role he believes the next U.S. president should play in global energy and climate discussions.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and former co-chair of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Chris, it's great to have you here.

Chris Field: It's great to be here, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: Chris, on the heels of the Paris Agreement, the IPCC is working on a new report due out in late 2018 on ways to avoid warming the Earth beyond the 1.5-degree target. You recently said that based on your research, the 1.5-degree goal now looks impossible or at a minimum will be a very difficult task. What's driven the acceleration?

Chris Field: Well, the U.N. Framework Convention asked the IPCC to evaluate the impacts of warming to 1.5 and to see whether it's within the realm of feasibility.

I think what we discovered in the last IPCC report is that we're already seeing dangerous impacts of climate changes that have already occurred, and we know that the number of dangerous impacts and the risk of those impacts increases as the amount of warming increases.

To some extent what I think we're seeing is a separation between the recognition of what's dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system and what we can do in terms of ambitious mitigation and the difference between where danger occurs and what we can achieve is in some ways what we need to address with adaptation.

Monica Trauzzi: Is the Paris deal then already outdated in its goals and targets because politically we look at the Paris deal as being very significant? From a science standpoint, is it significant or does it not necessarily do —?

Chris Field: Well, what the Paris Agreement specifies is that the goal should be to limit warming well under 2 C above preindustrial with efforts to ask whether it's possible to stabilize at 1.5 C. All of the available evidence says that the 2 C is within the realm of what's possible in a transition that protects the interests of people in poor countries, as well as the interests of people around the world and ecosystems.

So I wouldn't say that the Paris Agreement is outside the realm of possibility, but what we increasingly see is evidence that being able to provide ambitious mitigation that holds us at the low range of the possible impacts, and 2 C or better is going to require action in the very, very near term with a very heavy foot on the accelerator pedal of the pace of that action to reduce fossil emission.

Monica Trauzzi: So what then does that mix of adaptation and mitigation look like in your view?

Chris Field: A way to think about it is that we need to adapt. We know we need to adapt to the current conditions because we're not well-adapted now and as the more warming we cook into the system, the more we're going to need to adapt.

We also know that if high emissions continue without abatement that we'll reach a level at which the climate changes are so serious that we can't do adaptation anymore.

I think that if we step away from the Paris Agreement and what we really need to do with them as a societal imperative is make sure that warming doesn't go outside the range where adaptation is possible.

What we can say from the science perspective is that if we can limit warming to the ambitious end in Round 2 C that it looks like we can adapt to the most serious kinds of impacts. Above that, it's very unclear.

Monica Trauzzi: What are the unknowns that you think could dramatically influence the path towards effective mitigation and adaptation?

Chris Field: The prospects for building a zero-emitting energy system have become much clearer in just the last few years. Five years ago almost all the energy researchers would have said, "Well, there are big things we don't know about how to provide energy storage or how to deal with the intermittency of the renewable energy resources."

But now we have an increasingly clear picture of how we can put together existing, well-established technologies with grid integration and demand-side management coupled with storage in order to put together the core pieces of a system that can be nonemitting.

You'll probably still have some fossil resources with carbon capture and storage. It may have nuclear in it, but a rough outline of a zero-emissions energy system is increasingly coming into focus.

This is a problem that can be solved. Whether or not we solve it in the near term depends more on political will and aligning incentives than it depends on the availability of the relevant technology.

Monica Trauzzi: Broadly where do you think the conversation on climate science stands now in terms of acknowledgement, but also action?

Chris Field: I hope the evidence is clear that the climate is changing and that humans are causing most of the changes and that if emissions of heat-trapping gases continue on the pace they are that we will face impacts of climate change that are serious, that are pervasive and that are irreversible.

The real challenge I think is more now about understanding the trade-offs of the costs of investment in decreasing the amount of climate change that occurs, the costs of adapting to the climate changes that we can't avoid and the costs of the impacts that remain in society.

One of the most exciting things on the horizon that I see is an increasing recognition of co-benefits where there are investments in economic development that also help mitigation or also help adaptation. It's no longer that everything's a trade-off where you either invest in development or mitigation or adaptation.

Monica Trauzzi: COP22 will take place in Marrakech later this year in November. What will the primary goals of that meeting be?

Chris Field: The real goals now are to make sure that countries have the resources available to stick with the commitments they made in their nationally determined contributions that are now the stock and trade of the international agreement about what's fair and what each country can do between now and 2030.

2030 is coming up. It's going to be here in the blink of an eye. We need to make sure that the commitments that have already been made get really built into the policy framework and have a set of enabling mechanisms that allow each country to make good on the commitments that they've made.

Monica Trauzzi: Let's talk about the U.S. specifically for a moment. We're in the midst of a contentious presidential election here in the U.S. Obviously Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have vastly different perspectives on climate change and climate action. What do you believe the next U.S. president needs to do on energy and climate?

Chris Field: The United States has the opportunity to have a profoundly important leadership role on addressing the climate challenge. The agreement between the U.S. and China back in 2014 was totally enabling for the world to come together with the Paris Agreement.

I think we've already seen the consequences of U.S. leadership, U.S. leadership moving forward in implementation of the Clean Power Plan I think can be incredibly important in helping other countries see the advantages of moving to zero-emitting energy system and of demonstrating that we can find co-benefits that create jobs, that improve health, that build stronger communities at the same time we're tackling the climate challenge.

Monica Trauzzi: We're going to end it right there. Thank you very much for coming on the show. Great to see you.

Chris Field: A real pleasure. Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: Thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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