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Giving Robert Socolow a Wedgie (so to speak)

In 2004, Steve Pacala and Robert Socolow published a paper in Science about climate mitigation which introduced the concept of ‘stabilisation wedges’. This proposed that rather than waiting for some ‘magic bullet’, one amazing technology that would bring climate change under control, what was needed was the immediate and much expanded application of a combination of existing and proven technologies which, combined, would have the desired effect. “Humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century” they wrote. It was a timely and seminal approach. But it strikes me that, given that their underpinning assumptions neglect a wider perspective in term of the ‘perfect storm’ of other challenges that increasingly keep climate change company in the “reasons-to-lie-awake-at-night” charts (powerfully described by Jeremy Rifkin recently), that it is in desperate need of a profound overhaul, rather than having been ‘reaffirmed’ by the intervening 7 years.

Wedges?

Socolow recently wrote a short paper for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, ‘The Wedges Reaffirmed’, in which he defended the original paper, and argued that, given the lack of decisive action since the idea was first proposed, and therefore the increased scale of the challenge, the world now needs 9 wedges rather than the 7 that were proposed in 2004. Let’s just look a bit closer at this whole ‘wedge’ concept. The idea is that rather than looking at the scale of cuts in emissions and seeing it as a huge, impossible task, it is broken into highly ambitious but manageable pieces. As Socolow puts it, “we decomposed a heroic challenge into a limited set of monumental tasks”. This is immensely valuable. The wedges include things like:

  • efficiency and conservation
  • shifting from coal to gas
  • carbon capture and storage
  • nuclear fission
  • renewable energy sources
  • forests and agriculture

Within that, there are some good things. The reduction in car use, an increase in public transport, the prevention of deforestation and good treatment of soils, and a big scaling up of renewable energy are clearly vital. Yet at the same time, there are also strategies such as replacing coal burning with gas, increased nuclear power, the rolling out of carbon capture and storage and the increased vehicle efficiency and electrification of car use. Yet these are deeply flawed, and exhibit how the approach fails to embrace the wider nature of our predicament.

The replacement of coal with gas is widely seen as a good thing, but given the problems already associated with maintaining demand (the IEA recently stated that it believes both coal and gas production look set to peak in 2020), and the suggestion that the switch from coal to gas may well actually increase emissions due to the associated leaking of methane, this starts to look a bit shaky. It is also clear that in the UK, this increased reliance on gas is being pushed as an energy security question which necessitates the introduction of gas fracking, which it is now clear the UK government has little interest in regulating in any meaningful way. Carbon capture and storage, it must be remembered, is still an experimental technology rather than a panacea ready to be universally rolled out tomorrow. The best form of carbon capture and storage is, ultimately, leaving it in the ground in the first place.

At the same time as these solutions are being represented as being ‘reaffirmed”, UK oil production from the North Sea fell 25% in the last quarter, and if Chris Skrebowski is correct, that peak oil is, to all intents and purposes, the moment at which the oil price means that economic growth is no longer possible, then we have virtually reached that historic landmark. There is also evidence that the switch to electric cars may actually increase dependency on coal and could have a higher footprint than efficient petrol vehicles. These wedges all increase dependency on centrally controlled, top-down technologies. There is also a huge question, given the rapid unravelling of the economy, as to whether we will be able to afford these huge infrastructure projects, in terms of the energy they will require and in terms of what they will cost. The Right argue that we need deep cuts and austerity, to ‘unfetter’ big business and that we can tackle climate change once we ‘return to growth’. The Left argue that now is the time for borrowing even more money for a debt-heavy Keynesian infrastructure spending splurge, yet as Richard Heinberg argues in ‘The End of Growth’:

“The Keynesians still see the world through the lens of the Great Depression. During the 1930s, industrialised countries were in the early stages of their shift from an agrarian, coal-based, rural economy to an electrified, oil-based, urban economy – a shift that required enormous infrastructure investments that would ultimately pay off handsomely for a nation on the verge of realising a consumer utopia. All that was needed to initiate the building of that infrastructure was credit – grease for the wheels of commerce…. Now is different … both the US and the world as a whole have passed a fundamental crossroads characterised by increasing scarcity of energy and crucial minerals. Because of this, strategies of growth that worked reliably in the mid- to- late 20th century – via various forms of business and technological development – have reached a point of diminishing returns”.

In his recent paper, Socolow argues that part of the blame for the fact that the world hasn’t adopted the wedges approach can be laid at the door of the environmental movement, for being so upbeat and chipper about the impacts and not acknowledging that there will be ‘pain’ alongside the ‘gain’ (as it were). Telling the world about climate change is likely to be as unwelcome as Galileo announcing that the world is round, he argues, and the failure to recognise this has hugely reduced the movement’s effectiveness. Environmentalists are also at fault, apparently, for not acknowledging uncertainties in the climate science, and also for not acknowledging that every proposed solution carries risks. I think it is far more likely that most of Pacala and Socolow’s wedges are, ultimately, unfeasible due to their own energy intensity and cost in a contracting global economy.

In response to what?

Socolow and Pacala’s wedges were conceived and proposed solely as responses to climate change. Yet, of course, climate change is not the only challenge we face. As the World Economic Forum’s recently-released analysis of the risks facing the world over the next 10 years identified, extreme energy price volatility and the fiscal crisis sit alongside climate change, closely followed by economic disparity, collectively leading the field in terms of risks we need to be building resilience to as a matter of urgency (see below).

Therefore when I look at their wedges, and particularly at Socolow’s new paper which argues the case for adding two additional wedges but doesn’t actually say what they are, I am led to speculate that a more effective approach to the wedges would necessitate ditching those that are massively costly, centralised and energy intensive infrastructure projects, and to adding one vital strategy, currently missing from Pacala and Socolow’s very ‘business-as-usual’ approach, but which, I believe, could take up a few wedges-worth of wedge space. It would be a wedge which, unlike the others, also addresses the other challenges rather than centralising power and economic benefits to a small number of corporations in the way that, say, a new programme of nuclear power would. It is what Peter North terms “intentional localisation”.

The localisation wedge

North has argued that peak oil means that:

“transport again becomes significant in terms of cost, resource use and emissions. Currently very cheap goods produced through globalised production networks will become, and remain, more expensive. The currently near will become further away, again, in a process of ‘reverse globalisation’.”

This ‘reverse globalisation’ would mean that either we lay back supine and allow the impacts of this to wash over us as they like (our current situation), or that we engage proactively with it. A programme of ‘intentional localisation’ would strive to boost production of local food and other essential produce for local markets, use the building regulations to introduce a shift in building materials so as to create new markets for local and vernacular building materials, would incentivise decentralised energy systems where possible for new developments, and community ownership of renewable energy generation. It would seek to implement a favouring of the local through procurement policies which would necessitate a rolling back of much that has been dismissed under the term ‘protectionism’.

It would ensure that the true costs of, for example, the UK exporting the same amount of potatoes to Germany each year as it imports from Germany each year, would be reflected in the costs of doing so, and would actively discourage such silliness. It would cap the size companies could grow to and break them up if they went above that. It would introduce a national ‘maximum wage’ to sit alongside the national minimum wage. It would recognise urban agriculture as a key element of urban land use planning.

It would take the new economics foundation’s ‘leaky bucket’ metaphor, which sees local economies as being like leaky buckets, and each hole in that bucket as a potential livelihood/business/enterprise, and turn that into a policy objective. It would turn ‘localism’ into ‘localisation’. It would be a mature facing-up to our current situation, rather than the UK government’s current approach of assuming that all development is ‘sustainable development’ and that we need to reduce all obstacles to business, such as the absurd new policy of increasing the speed limit on the UK’s motorways because “increasing the motorway speed limit to 80mph would generate economic benefits of hundreds of millions of pounds through shorter journey times”.

Of course, an active programme of intentional localisation would require a huge and genuine shift in power, given that the shift in focus in the planning system is away from community empowerment and on corporations being able to ride roughshod over local economies, as George Monbiot so brilliantly highlighted recently. Some of the policies that this would require are set out in nef’s excellent ‘The Great Transition’ document.

It’s a new paradigm out there…

Yet this is, if ever there was, a time for new thinking. The internet is still abuzz with discussion as to whether Alessio Rastani, who appeared on BBC News earlier this week and left everyone reeling, was for real, a Yes Man, or a chancer. Here’s the clip in case you didn’t see it:

It certainly amplifies the ‘Titanic groaning’ sensation I wrote about last week. But the reality is, as ‘Kid Dynamite’ blogged the next day, that nothing Rastani said should come as any news to anyone. The candour with which he said what he said is something with which we are hugely unfamiliar, hence its impact, but that’s all. We have reached the end of growth, the end of the age of cheap energy, the end of the time where we can ignore climate change, or assume its something we’ll deal with in the future when we have a growing economy again. It’s a different world now. It feels different. It does to me anyway.

In this context, much of what Socolow and Pacala feature in their wedges are rapidly becoming hugely expensive infrastructure projects that the world simply can’t afford any more. While the UK’s High Speed Rail project is proving hugely controversial, I can’t imagine that there will ever be the funds to make it happen, nor the surplus net energy to commit to such a project. I did an interview with national business news TV when I was in Brussels the other day. The interviewer said “can we live without oil?”, to which the only possible reply I could give was “I really don’t think we’re going to have much choice”.

Why Transition matters

This is why Transition is such a hugely important thing. Clearly government is still at the stage of hoping, on some deep irrational level, that it can still pull economic growth out of the fire, even though all that is happening at the moment is that their fingers are getting more and more burnt. It sees the way of achieving that as being to remove ‘red tape’ and to allow the construction industry access to whatever building land it chooses. It focuses on a return to growth above all else, peak oil and climate change shoved into the “to deal with once growth is restored” box (George Osborne recently ambitiously declared “we’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe”). Yet, increasing the speed limit increases oil dependency, gas fracking increases carbon emissions. In spite of recent improvements in domestic energy efficiency, increasing consumption leads to increased energy use, and so it goes on.

So, increasingly, modelling this localisation wedge in practice is vital. No-one else is going to do it. Transition groups are already:

  • Showing that community energy companies bring a wide range of benefits and are viable.
  • Creating new local food systems that benefit local farmers and growers and allow more money to cycle locally.
  • Developing and trialling innovative new local currency schemes such as the Brixton Pound which have huge potential replicability and scalability.
  • Finding productive ways to work with their local councils on a range of projects
  • Creating initiatives like Transition Streets which show that just giving grants for domestic renewable isn’t enough, that underpinning it with a street-by-street behaviour change process greatly increases the all-round carbon reduction, while building local economic activity and sense of community.

These models, this experimentation, is vital, because it leads by example, and does a better job of addressing our challenges than the government take does. They also build, rather than diminish, equality. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue in ‘The Spirit Level’:

“How might greater equality and policies to reduce carbon emissions go together? Given what inequality does to a society, and particularly how it heightens competitive consumption, it looks not only as if the two are complementary, but also as if governments may be unable to make big enough cuts in carbon emissions without reducing inequality.”

Current policies are doing exactly the opposite.

Doing the maths

Yet where we fall down in arguing the above isn’t the reasons that Socolow argues above, but rather because we don’t have the research on localisation. We have the data in terms of how much carbon could be saved through a new programme of nuclear power, how many jobs it would create, how much it would cost and what the measurable benefits would be (at least I’m assuming we do!). Likewise for vehicle efficiency and carbon capture and storage (which it must be remembered doesn’t actually work yet). But we don’t have that for localisation. This is a piece of research that desperately needs to be undertaken.

I would hazard a guess that a far more effective and appropriate set of wedges, which would actually address the confluence of challenges we actually face, would include, among other things:

  • Intentional economic localisation backed with meaningful support of emerging new businesses and organisations
  • A crash programme of energy efficiency across all sectors
  • A crash programme of renewable energy, where possible in community ownership (the figure I suggest in The Transition Companion is around 25%)
  • A big increase in public transport
  • Preventing deforestation and promoting the building of soils
  • Reducing consumerism through restrictions on advertising

My guess is that such a piece of research would find that localisation would generate more economic activity at the local level as well as saving more carbon, reducing oil dependency, and boosting equality and democracy. It would also cost much less. As Paul Kingsnorth argued this week, our future lies in smallness not by removing any obstacles that stand in the way of bigness becoming even bigger. Such a piece of research would also identify the elements of this transition that can be held, led and managed by communities, and which need to be more top-down. If anyone has already done such a piece of research, I’d love to see it (I would think that CAT’s ZCB2030 would provide a strong foundation for parts of it), if not, let’s do it shall we? It may well turn out to be one hell of a wedge.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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