Energy Action Wedgies…Er, Wedges

Back in 2004, Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow published a basic description in Science of how societies could bend the increasing curve of atmospheric CO2 concentration forecast for the rest of this century.  They described 15 technologies, any seven of which, if deployed widely, would be enough to radically reduce the increase of global atmospheric carbon by 2060.   They included efficient use of energy by buildings as one of their 15.

They described and illustrated their approach as a series of wedges, which if stacked together, would suffice to hold atmospheric CO2 at a high but perhaps not catastrophic level of 500 ppm by the beginning of the next century.  An important message from this article:  no one technology will suffice but we will need a collection of different technologies and approaches.

Last month also in Science, we got some updates from the energy policy and big scale action front, somewhat bad news and somewhat good news.

We’ll start with the somewhat bad news.  James Williams and a set of colleagues published a study in the 6 January 2012 issue of Science that examined the technical paths for California to achieve its proposed 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels.  This dramatic reduction seems to be a real stretch, a transformation that “….demands technologies not yet commercialized, as well as coordination of investment, technology development and infrastructure deployment.”

Williams et al., like Pigala and Socolow, look at stacking up technologies; energy efficiency in buildings leads the way.  In their analysis, they presumed that all new residential and commercial buildings are effectively “net zero” users of grid sourced electricity by 2030 (primarily by technology and design changes, which of course need to be supported by smart operations and fast-paced learning, driven by testing and data.)

Given the current state of political divisions and lack of consensus to address future climate impacts, it seems unlikely that political leaders and the voting public in California will jump at the chance to invest and change energy systems to the degree required to achieve the climate goals as analyzed by Williams et al.

But now the somewhat good news.  In the 13 January 2012 issue of Science, Shindell et al. published an article that outlined ways to simultaneously mitigate climate change in the next decades while improving health and food security.   The 14 measures identified in the article don’t tackle the daunting challenges of CO2 reduction but three other drivers of atmospheric damage:  ozone, black carbon (soot), and methane.    Reduced air pollution reduces health damage, primarily in developing countries.  Methane reductions particularly can play a big part in keeping the atmospheric warming lower by 1/2 degree C in the next 40 years–perhaps giving us collectively a little more time to learn how to live more responsibly and sustainably.

The power of Shindell et al’s arguments is that the benefits from the changes are not “for the future”, asking people to pay now for future benefits that they might never experience.

That seems good advice as we work to improve energy efficiency–to figure out ways to connect to what people value now and to deliver better performance while reducing waste and costs.

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