The Solution to Climate Change

Joseph Romm is one of the most respected writers on climate policy. Here is a summary of his thoughts on what is necessary to avert catastrophic warming:

We have to bring down the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to between 350-450 parts per million (ppm) to avoid the hellish worst of climate change. Economically and technologically, this is quite doable. However, it is not plausible in the current political climate. Because the alternative is unacceptable, we will get there, but to do so we must all become familiar with the best solutions, and then loudly push our political leaders toward them.

The solution is centered around achieving ~14 “stabilization wedges”. One wedge = one billion fewer metric tons of CO2 emitted globally, compared to projected levels. Again, this is possible with current technologies, and has a net cost of zero. The basic strategy is to replace all coal as quickly as possible, and to electrify transportation as much as possible.

Pacala & Socolow's Stabilization Wedges

Though there’s no silver bullet, but there is “one” solution: we must deploy every conceivable energy-efficient and low carbon technology that we have today as fast as we can. In order to reach the target carbon concentration of 350ppm, we have to deploy all 14 wedges of energy savings by 2040. Though increasingly serious implementation will begin soon, starting around 2030 multiple climate-caused catastrophes will cause drastic measures unthinkable today to be implemented. We must reverse the trend of increasing emissions by 2015-2020 at the latest, and we must have substantial action before 2012 or we’re toast.

There are about 18 wedges possible, and we need about 14 of them to succeed. Here are the options:

Currently available (14.5):

  • 1 wedge – albedo change through white roofs and pavement ( “soft geo-engineering” )
  • 1 wedge – vehicle efficiency: 60mpg standard for all cars, no increase in miles driven
  • 2 wedges – wind: two million large wind turbines
  • 3 wedges – Concentrated Solar Power aka Solar Baseload
  • 3 wedges – energy efficiency: one each for buildings, industry, and cogeneration/heat-recovery (also geothermal heat pumps)
  • 1 wedge – solar photovoltaics (PV)
  • 2 wedges – end deforestation AND plant new trees covering an area the size of the United States
  • 1 wedge – massive conservation post-2030
  • 1/2 wedge – nuclear (more not plausible, and it’s expensive, too)

Requiring more R&D (4):

  • 1 wedge – geothermal & other ocean-based renewables (wave, tidal, ocean thermal)
  • 1 wedge – coal with biomass cofiring WITH carbon capture & sequestration (more not plausible, and it’s expensive, too)
  • 1/2 wedge – next-generation nuclear
  • 1/2 wedge – cellulosic biofuels for long-distance transport & remaining aviation
  • 1 wedge – soil & biochar

There will, of course, be substantial up-front investments. However, they are a drop in the bucket of global GDP: 1.1%, or approximately one trillion dollars per year.

The IPCC, The McKinsey Global Institute, and the conservative International Energy Agency all report that the cost of this strategy will reduce global GDP by less than $1 for every $10,000. Because the huge costs of dealing with climate change will largely be avoided by this strategy, it is a net gain for the global and US economies.

For more detail, see the original posts, here, here, and here.

2 thoughts on “The Solution to Climate Change

  1. This is a terrific wrap-up Alex of what has become a difficult and distractingly politicized argument. It is difficult because few people do as you have here and start by laying out solutions in a connected and cogent manner. As you suggest all of these “wedged” suggestions (14 of 18) must be promoted, examined and refined, for the rate of increase in heat trapping gases to stabilize over a century.

    In my talks to groups, I suggest that the heat trapping gas emissions problem we are facing is like the unpaid balance on a credit card that drives the debt no matter what we do to stop spending, the interest drives up the costs. While not accurate precisely, this does get people to realize the sooner we begin implementing policies represented by the wedges the better. So material such as you posting can assist us in the necessary conversation concerning what works and who benefits from the policy suggested by each wedge.

    As these solutions reduce the rate of emissions and not the underlying cause I would be interested in more effective ways to examine and describe the energy choices people are making and the consequences such thinking has on the behavior of consumer’s.

    For example, in speaking with people in Israel, where the heating of water by solar (thermal) collectors is “second nature” because it is everywhere apparent on roof-tops, there is little use of photo-electrical (voltaic) collectors and facilities. The deserts in that region are enormous and this time of year are cloud free, but unlike Germany that is underwriting solar electrical proliferation Israel is a fossil fuel nightmare (so to speak). As I see it these are two of the wedges as is more efficient lighting and building design (even awnings would be a start over southerly exposed windows), but I see barriers to linking one wedged group of so alleged solutions to another set.

    Have you run across any commentary on the cognitive barriers to implementing these behavioral changes that your good discussion reveals?

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