Nature publishes my climate analysis and solution

Here is perhaps my most succinct and citable explanation of why “Both national and global climate policy must redirect its focus from setting a price on carbon to promoting the rapid deployment of clean technologies” (online here, subs. req’d).

True, I didn’t think I would appear in Nature again. But Nature online asked me for my critique of the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner Bill bill, and they were open to a big-picture commentary based on the latest climate science. They even ran with a modified version of my proposed wedges solution (see below, longer version here). The central conclusion of the paper is the major theme of this blog:

The latest science suggests that national and global climate policy is seriously misdirected. We must aim at achieving average annual carbon dioxide emissions of less than 5 GtC [5 billion metric tons of carbon] this century or risk the catastrophe of reaching atmospheric concentrations of 1,000 p.p.m. A carbon price set by a cap-and-trade system is a useful component of a longer-term climate strategy. Implementing such a system, however, is secondary to adopting a national and global strategy to stop building new traditional coal-fired plants while starting to deploy existing and near-term low-carbon technologies as fast as is humanly possible.

What are the “series of aggressive strategies for technology deployment” we need?

… tax credits, loan guarantees or other incentives for low-carbon technology, demonstration projects of technologies such as carbon capture and storage, a standard for electricity generation involving renewable or low-carbon options, a low-carbon fuel standard, tougher standards for fuel economy and appliances, and utility regulations that create a profit for investments in efficiency. These are all features of the climate plan of the Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, but are not part of the announced climate strategy of Republican presidential nominee John McCain, whose plan starts by allowing unlimited offsets.

I am especially delighted that they created a figure for me of the wedges (click to enlarge):


They even ran my full caption/caveat:

Figure 1 Strategy for stabilization. The top line represents business-as-usual global carbon emissions (in GtC) from fossil fuel combustion projected through 2070. Each of the 11 coloured wedges represents a different climate strategy that is deployed globally beginning in 2020 and avoids 1 GtC/year by 2070. Continued through 2100, this flat emissions path of 11 GtC/year would bring global carbon dioxide concentrations of 1,000 p.p.m. if accompanied by climate–carbon-cycle feedbacks anticipated by the IPCC. The ‘wedges’ approach is not analytically rigorous in that Socolow and Pacala do not know the business-as-usual baseline — they don’t specify, for instance, how many nuclear plants will be built in the absence of climate policies. Because the IPCC’s own economic models do not present a clear baseline, this should not be seen as a fatal flaw; nonetheless, the wedges above should be taken as qualitative rather than prescriptive. Strong efforts would also be required to decrease other greenhouse gases, but they are not the focus of this article. This figure is inspired by Socolow and Pacala’s stabilization wedges but does not represent the views of the original paper’s authors or of Princeton University’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative. Modifi ed from the original with permission from Princeton University and AAAS.

I should hasten to add that I still think the optimum strategy is about 13 or 14 wedges implemented in about 35 to 40 years, as the International Energy Agency does (see “IEA report, Part 2: Climate Progress has the 450-ppm solution about right“). But I went with 11 wedges here (implemented in 50 years or 25 years) for reasons that will be clear when you read the analysis — basically I’m trying to show the policy difference between “stabilizing” at 1000 ppm and stabilizing at 450 ppm, namely that the latter requires a massive and rapid deployment of existing and near-term technology.

Needless to say, I disagree with Roger Pielke, Jr.’s Nature piece (first quote) and agree with Pacala and Socolow (second quote):

Although it has recently been argued that “enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at acceptable levels”, on the contrary it would seem that “humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century.”

And again, needless to say, a focus on breakthrough technologies, though rhetorically compelling, is misdirected:

In fact, such is the urgent need to reverse emissions trends by deploying a multitude of low-carbon technologies that we must rely on technologies that either are already commercial or will very shortly be so. Fortunately, venture capitalists and public companies have begun to inject many billions of dollars into the development and short-term commercialization of most plausible low-carbon technologies. Governments should now focus their R&D spending on a longer-term eff ort aimed at a new generation of technologies for the emissions reduction eff ort aft er 2040, but the notion that we need a Manhattan Project or Apollo programme for technology development is mistaken. Instead, what is urgently needed is an effort of that scale focused on the deployment of technology.

Supposedly game-changing energy breakthroughs, even if they were an outcome we could reliably depend on — which they are not — don’t in fact change the “game,” which is a massive and rapid deployment of existing and near-term technology. For a longer discussion of this point, see “Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 3: The breakthrough technology illusion.”

Finally, they let me include a much-shortened version of why stabilizing at 550 ppm is not really a superior strategy, even if it is possible, which it probably isn’t:

Some may believe that stabilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations below 450 p.p.m. is so diffi cult that we should seek to stabilize them at 550 p.p.m. or higher. But from a policy perspective, stabilizing at 550 p.p.m. is not much easier to achieve than levelling off at 450 p.p.m. — it still requires employing the vast majority of the wedges described here in under five decades, starting very soon. And yet the scientific evidence suggests that reaching 550 p.p.m. could have much graver consequences, for example destroying a large fraction of the permafrost, which houses a third of the carbon stored in soils globally. Much of this carbon would be released in the form of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and could thus trigger more rapid climate change. Delay therefore risks crossing climate thresholds that would make efforts at emissions reduction far harder, if not almost impossible.

For a longer analysis of the tundra problem, see “Tundra, Part 2: The point of no return.”

I hope this piece will stir up discussion and maybe some action, as I really, really don’t want to subject future generations to the horror of 1000 ppm (seeIs 450 ppm politically possible? Part 0: The alternative is humanity’s self-destruction“).

No one will ever forgive our generation if we do that. Nor should they!


14 Responses to Nature publishes my climate analysis and solution

  1. Michael says:

    This commentary is actually posted at NatureReports – Climate Change, a separate site within; material posted here can be accessed without a subscription to Nature. You just have to register (i.e. submit name and email address) with

    “Nature Publishing Group is happy to provide all content on Nature Reports: Climate Change completely free of charge to users registered on Nature Reports: Climate Change content is free to read online and to download in pdf format. Where we link out to material on other sites, individual site restrictions apply.”

  2. steve says:

    I don’t know how you can disagree with Pielke’s quote, as I’m not sure that he actually says anything. At first read, I thought he was saying something similar to P&S, but the more I read it, the more its just a worthless sentence. He deserves the “delayer” label if not for his views, than for authoring pieces that do little to advance the greater discussion towards a solution.

  3. Joe says:

    Michael — Thanks.

  4. David B. Benson says:

    Joe — Good! :-)

    Now figure out how to cause congressional staffpersons to actually read it. I dunno know how to do that. :-(

  5. Joe, although I’m confident my email to you four days ago had nothing to do with your preparation of the Nature piece, this post, or you worldview, I take this to be a complete response to what I said. Thank you.

    In brief, I sang the praises of command and control versus cap and trade. I haven’t read the Nature piece yet but I have the impression your approach involves a bunch of subsidies to clean technologies. If so, I am yet to be persuaded about that. I suggest it would be better to establish emission limits and mandate markets for the output of clean plants and let the markets work. Maybe some of each is necessary?

    My final point I’ll copy from my email.

    If the US is going to be a leader in controlling GHGs (instead of waiting until there is a global treaty requiring all nations to march forward with us in lock-step), we should adopt an approach that gives us the most rhetorical power in future negotiations with China, India, Russia, Brazil, etc. The idea of national emission caps sounds to developing countries like economic growth caps, which they naturally resist. I suggest they might be more receptive to arguments for plant-level technology-based standards such as a best available control technology requirement or a minimum efficiency standard. For example, if we in the US have started retrofitting CCS technology and have legislation putting other facilities on a time-line to adopt it, we would be in a strong moral position to insist that other nations should also adopt this proven technology. In these developing countries there will be constituencies favoring state-of-the-art technology just because it is state-of-the-art; it’s a point of national pride. Also, the issue will be framed as why the money should not be spent to apply an available fix to a particular substandard pollution source; that is at least one step removed from, and less appealing than, the let-us-grow argument. Importantly, it also blows away the technical infeasibility argument. And it may help such nations more easily resolve their own internal political struggles about which constituency’s emissions should be reduced and whose should be given a pass.

    This proposal arises in part from my experience in 1975-76 in Morocco. I was there trying to sell a license for the Tosco oil shale technology to the government. The question of capital costs naturally came up, and I suggested (not proud of this now) that Tosco’s design for a plant in western Colorado included costly pollution control equipment and processes that the government of Morocco could chose to exclude. I was surprised when the Minister of Mines immediately took that off the table. He said it would be unthinkable to build a plant in Morocco that was any dirtier than a world class plant.

    This very summer, we can see the Chinese government desperately wanting to keep its air pollution from ruining the Olympics and being a worldwide embarrassment. There will be clean air and anti-GHG constituencies arising in China, India and elsewhere, especially as they gain greater access to information about how people in the developed world don’t have to wear gas masks on the streets. We can help that bottoms-up process by creating extremely clear examples of what they could do differently.

    Keep up the good work!

  6. David B. Benson says:

    How many wdges for backyard solar thermal?

    “Inventors: Solar Dish Could Revolutionize Energy Production”

  7. Earl Killian says:

    While it is delightful to have a nice graphic, it appears that Nature chose the wrong thing to graph. What is the point of a graphic that represents the failure strategy of reaching 1000 ppmv by 2100?

    Was a graphic showing 11 25-year wedges, followed by another set starting in 2040 too busy or something? Busy or not, that’s what you are really proposing.

  8. john says:

    Joe — this is a phenomenal piece. Great work!

    I do agree with Earl, however, that the graphic isn’t ideal — in addition to his observation, they don’t appear to have scaled the wedges, and I think that’s an important part of the message.

    But the meat of th article is great —

    I would love to see the 14 wedge version of this article in Scientific American or some other broader ciruclation magazine that reaches a general audience. It’s too important to leave to the scientists — and –or Nature Reports – Climate Change :good as it is — doesn’t reach the educated lay person.

    I don’t believe the average person has the slightest clue about what we’re in store for if we don’t act, and what it will take to address climate change. Moreover, i believe that showing people it can be done will help mobilize them … and a factual presentation like the 14 wedge strategy will do that.

    Do we really need the nukes?

  9. john says:

    One other comment on the figure — isn’t the wind projection low? Seems drastically below technical potential — in fact, looks like a typo.

  10. paulm says:

    problem is we have to get to at least 350!

  11. Ecostew says:

    Nice Joe, We really need to have a national energy/AGW policy debate before the election.

  12. Michael D says:

    Joe – nice work.

    I think the wedges idea is a good way of presenting the solutions and once explained is a good graphical way of getting the public on board.

    However, I’m wondering how likely you think CCS will be ready in time?

    Most of the techs in the wedges are more or less in use at reasonable scale (perhaps Plug-in hybrids and biofuels less so), but I’ve not yet seen a large scale (1000MW) successful CCS plant on an existing coal plant. Nor perhaps a with potential to retrofit.

    I know there are examples in Norway or in oil recovery where similar is being performed, but do any coal plants have the tech full tested and running? And if not, how likely do you see it happening?

    I’m from Victoria, Australia, where 90% of our electricity is from brown coal (lignite) power plants. Our historical reliance on brown coal means the state (and Fed) Govt is desperate for CCS to work, but signs aren’t great so far…

    Also, David Benson above, here’s another rather efficient solar tech. The manufacturing plant is being built in melb at the moment. With a 2MW demo ready by end of 2012.

  13. Sasparilla says:

    Just read this now – this is great article Joe. I hadn’t heard the “we shouldn’t depend on CapNTrade” as the main driver of things clearly before, but it is exactly on target. Alot of this stuff can get done by Obama and company no matter what the Repubs and black Dems do with cap and trade.

    This gives me some hope, thank goodness!

    Looking at the probably outcomes of the CapNTrade legislation from the 2009/2010 senate, I’d become truly demoralized – but you’re right we don’t need that to be the driver to fix things, its time has passed already.

  14. Sandy says:

    Thoughtful post and well written. Please write more on this if you have time.