Friday, December 30, 2005

Subtracting Wedges

Since I started following the climate change issue in the mid-1990s, I’ve given a lot of thought to what might significantly change the US approach to the problem. Major signposts, such as weather/climate events, and dramatic scientific findings top the list. But perhaps a new way of looking at the situation could make a big difference, too. A novel conceptual framework from a Princeton engineering professor might just fit the bill, as described recently in The Economist (subscription required.)

Dr. Socolow’s idea is deceptively simple: rather than trying to tackle the whole problem at once, break it down into little pieces and focus on those. In the source article from last December's issue of Environment, he breaks down the emissions “triangle”--the difference between the status-quo greenhouse gas emissions trendline and the total reduction required to stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations--into smaller, more manageable segments. These segments can be "filled" by improvements in five different areas:
  • Energy conservation
  • Renewable energy
  • "Enhanced natural sinks" (forest- and land-management)
  • Nuclear energy
  • Fossil carbon management (sequestration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases)
Even though all these areas have been widely discussed in the context of mitigating climate change, this framework isn’t as trivial or obvious as it might seem. After all, the fatal flaw of the Kyoto Treaty is that it applies modest reductions against the entire slate of global greenhouse gas emissions, simultaneously going too far for some and not far enough for others--or to make a real dent in the problem. One of the primary arguments against US participation in the Kyoto Treaty is that major developing countries, and in particular China and India, aren’t bound by Kyoto’s reduction targets and would gain competitive advantage vs. our economy.

If the successor treaty to Kyoto for the post-2012 period were made up of nested agreements focusing on individual slices of the problem, we might have a process in which all countries would willingly participate in some segments--and thus contribute towards bringing global emissions down to a sustainable level. For example, the EU might choose to pursue all segments, while the US could opt in for sequestration and nuclear power, but out for other areas. China and India might find renewables and reforestation attractive, while opting out of higher-cost sequestration.

This sounds potentially chaotic, but it aligns nicely with the pragmatic approach being pursued in the G-8 and elsewhere, of focusing on areas of agreement, rather than seeking unattainable universal agreement. It also puts the emphasis on truly solving the problem, rather than on satisfying preconceived notions of what a solution must look like.

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