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CO2 Wedges: Superheroes?

wedgeThe wedge is a nifty little device with tremendous mechanical impact for its limited size and shape. Most recently the wedge has popped up as a key concept in climate change mitigation strategies.

Pacala and Socolow originated the idea of the climate wedges through their “stabilization triangle.” Al Gore made use of the concept in An Inconvenient Truth. Princeton and CMI even made a game based on the idea. Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Carbon emissions are expected to double in the next 50 years, from 7 billion to 14 billion tonnes of CO2 per year.
  2. The predicted upward path will result in CO2 levels triple that of preindustrial levels. We could dub this the “not pretty” zone.
  3. Keeping carbon emissions flat would mean avoiding a huge chunk of CO2 emissions in the future and thus act to stabilize the current growth in atmospheric CO2 levels.

The challenge is turning this concept into action. Enter our superheroes: the wedges.

There can be any number of them depending on how you slice the triangle. Pacala and Socolow argue that we have the technology to fight the battle against global warming on about fifteen or so different fronts. The CMI game gives each wedge a value of one billion tons of CO2 saved. The principle in both cases is that we can address global warming by dividing to conquer.

For example, automotive fuel efficiency is one potential wedge. If we double the mileage of all cars projected for 2055 from 30 to 60 mpg, we’ll save one billion tons of CO2.

The key for most wedges is finding sufficient political will and setting up the right economic incentives. The strategy often requires breaking wedges up into much smaller, more manageable pieces – subwedges – that help us move past the political inertia.

If I may, think of it as being down 5-0 late in the game and putting on your rally caps. Squeak out a bunt here, a single there, another single, a double, a walk, another walk, and a single and suddenly you’re back in the game.

Cumulatively, small actions will make a difference. Consider one potential wedge — voluntary carbon offsets. If just 50 million Americans (about the same number that purchased a Lance Armstrong bracelet) offset their carbon footrprint, we could reduce CO2 by 1 billion tons, or about one wedge.

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