Romm’s fourteen wedges

Red spraypaint

Joseph Romm, whose book I reviewed previously, has a new blog post up outlining what would be necessary to stabilize global concentrations of greenhouse gasses below 450 parts per million of CO2 equivalent. It is explained in terms of ‘stabilization wedges’ – each of which represents a reduction of one gigatonne (billion tonnes) below business as usual projections. In total, he says 14 are necessary by 2050 and suggests the following list:

  1. One wedge of vehicle efficiency — all cars getting 60 mpg, with no increase in miles traveled per vehicle.
  2. One of wind for power — one million large (2 MW peak) wind turbines.
  3. One of wind for vehicles — another 2000 GW wind. Most cars must be plug-in hybrids or pure electric vehicles.
  4. Three of concentrated solar thermal — about 5000 GW peak.
  5. Three of efficiency — one each for buildings, industry, and cogeneration/heat-recovery for a total of 15 to 20 million gwh.
  6. One of coal with carbon capture and storage — 800 GW of coal with CCS.
  7. One of nuclear power — 700 GW plus 10 Yucca mountains for storage.
  8. One of solar photovoltaics — 2000 GW peak (or less PV and some geothermal, tidal, and ocean thermal).
  9. One of cellulosic biofuels — using one-sixth of the world’s cropland (or less land if yields significantly increase or algae-to-biofuels proves commercial at large scale).
  10. Two of forestry — End all tropical deforestation. Plant new trees over an area the size of the continental U.S.
  11. One of soils — Apply no-till farming to all existing croplands.

No government anywhere has this level of ambition today. Just providing the nuclear wedge would require building 26 new plants a year, as well as ten geological repositories the size of Yucca Mountain. Providing the carbon capture wedge will require building a quantity of infrastructure capable of putting the same volume of CO2 into the ground as we are presently removing, when it comes to oil.

Romm does an excellent job of showing what a huge and civilizational challenge climate change really is. At the same time, while there is no technical reason for which fourteen wedges is impossible, one certainly doesn’t have the sense that anything like the necessary level of political will exists today. President Bush’s ludicrous announcement that the US will try to stop emissions growth by 2025 is closer to the mainstream of thinking in most places. At least a few people would rather doom future generations to an inhospitable planet than buckle down and make these changes.

Once again, we are left with the question of what might convince people to change. If fourteen wedges are what’s required, it seems virtually impossible that the rosy ‘it will all pay for itself’ possibility will play out. It is hard to imagine anything short of a catastrophe providing the necessary motive force, and it will take a catastrophe that unites the world in common effort, rather than divides it in fear or suspicion.

In short, the situation does not leave a person feeling optimistic.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

12 thoughts on “Romm’s fourteen wedges”

  1. Taking for granted that climate change is not going to be averted, that it’s a utopian dream that we could continue to live in a not drastically unchanged world, what do we do?

  2. Tristan,

    If you accept that, you need to think about the next threshold – the point at which climate change becomes self-sustaining and unstoppable.

    Where that lies is very hard to know, not least because of positive feedbacks. Just yesterday, a study reported that the beetle kill in B.C. will produce over 900 megatonnes of CO2 by 2020. That will be about 10% of total Canadian emissions across that time.

    Just think what would happen if the permafrost melted, the boreal forest was partly killed by beetles, or the Amazon dried out and burned.

  3. It is hard to imagine anything short of a catastrophe providing the necessary motive force

    A lot can change over the course of a few decades. While it might seem like a far stretch to achieve all those steps on the basis of today’s politics, we have every reason to hope that the need will be widely accepted in a decade or two.

  4. That photo is terrifying! Something to do with the dripping blood red and the slashes in the steel. That being said, I am beginning to think that graffiti is truly the most genuine, and maybe ‘highest’ form of art that we are seeing on the contemporary art scene.

    Mainly because the artist is at some level putting him or herself at a risk to communicate a political message. It’s also a really challenging medium, and there’s some really spectacular works of graffiti out and about.

    You capture a really interesting angle on that graffiti. It’s offensive to the point where it makes me jump a little. That’s pretty awesome.

  5. I don’t mean what do we do as citizens. I mean, what do we do as humans who have their most immediate duties to themselves, family, friends. What should “we” do?

    Hording rice and lentils seems like an appealing proposition.

  6. The thing you really never hear
    Posted by David Roberts at 10:34 AM on 27 Apr 2008

    This column from Newsweek editor Evan Thomas is largely a witless recitation of conventional wisdom, but it does raise one point I want to make.

    It seems to me that every mainstream media figure in the world is out there saying a) tackling global warming is going to be horrendously expensive, involving great sacrifice and hardship on the part of ordinary families, and b) no one else has the courage to say A.

    But obviously everybody has the courage to say it. It’s conventional wisdom. Like the “courageous” but equally false notion that Social Security is in crisis, it’s one of these talismans Beltway types brandish at one another to vouchsafe their status as Serious People. It could not be a more safe, predictable theme.

    What you almost never hear about is the horrendous costs that will come if we don’t tackle global warming — the rapidly spiraling costs of the status quo. That, not stasis, is the real alternative. When will someone in Thomas’ cozy position start talking about that? It might even make for a column worth reading.

  7. Earth Day preachin’
    By caring for God’s creatures, we avert a second flood
    Posted by Ken Ward (Guest Contributor) at 7:18 AM on 29 Apr 2008

    Hansen sketches a solution of appropriate scale: immediate halt to burning coal; crash Marshall program to replace it with renewables; limit oil and gas use to known, economically viable reserves; full-scale reforestation and adoption of carbon-storing agricultural practices.

    Nothing that we are doing, nor even seriously contemplating, comes anywhere near such massive a transformation, yet every actor on the political stage — including major environmental organizations, “green” corporations, and presidential candidates of both major parties — downplay the terrible realities and trumpet small-scale solutions wrapped in upbeat rhetoric.

  8. I don’t mean what do we do as citizens. I mean, what do we do as humans who have their most immediate duties to themselves, family, friends. What should “we” do?

    Hording rice and lentils seems like an appealing proposition.

    Hoarding implies a temporary situation. If you are really serious, you should buy land in an area that is likely to be affected relatively little by climate change (probably near the equator at moderate altitude) and learn to grow a wide range of staple foods there.

  9. You capture a really interesting angle on that graffiti. It’s offensive to the point where it makes me jump a little. That’s pretty awesome.

    Thanks. I quite enjoy photographic graffiti. Some of it is made with a great deal of skill.

  10. Larder starter
    The non-survivalist’s guide to stocking up for hard times

    This particular swine flu pandemic—which may or may not be linked to factory farms—doesn’t appear to pose much of a public-health menace. But it reminds us of an old lesson: chaos happens. Regarding pandemics, our very own government advises people to keep two weeks’ worth of supplies on hand, which is truly the least the government can do given its recent disaster track record. You don’t have to be a Chuck Norris-obsessed, gun-packing paranoiac to stash a bit of canned food and water in case of hard times.

    You’re worried about foreign invasion, huh? While keeping a sharp lookout for an armada in the Gulf, consider these tips before heading to the store for batteries and canned tuna

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