How much is enough to stop climate catastrophe? Baby steps and half measures won't do it. We need a plan of action and timeline that matches the scale of the problem and provides a bar for evaluating corporate, government, community, and household plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels we can live with.
The following is based on the work of scientists at Prince?ton University's Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI). The CMI group proposes we stabilize emissions at current levels, instead of more than doubling them over the next 50 years as would happen with business as usual. To tackle this challenge, they divide the task into “wedges” of equal size—each with the capacity to reduce carbon emissions by 1 billion tons per year by 2054. CMI lists 15 ways of getting there, out of which we need to achieve just seven to hit the target.
At Co-op America, we added our own filters to this building block approach. We screened out measures that are too dangerous, costly, and slow, and we beefed up those that are safe and cost-effective. Wind is now cost-competitive at utility scale; solar will be in three to five years. New nuclear, synfuels, and “clean” coal are not cost-competitive. In addition to the proliferation, waste, and safety hazards, nuclear power will take too long to scale up; four strikes, nuclear power is out.
With these filters, we developed a plan that uses current technologies; is safe, clean, cost-effective; and is more than big enough to meet the climate challenge—12 wedges when we only need seven. Each of the following could achieve 1 billion tons per year in CO2 reduction by 2054, except the solar and wind options, which would each reduce emissions by 1.5 billion tons.
- Increase fuel economy for 2 billion cars from an average of 30 mpg to 60 mpg by 2054.
- Cut back on driving. Decrease car travel for 2 billion 30-mpg cars from 10,000 to 5,000 miles per year by 2054, through increased use of mass transit, telecommuting, and urban design that is conducive to walking and biking.
- Increase efficiency of new buildings and appliances to achieve zero-emissions, in order to achieve 25 percent average reduction across all buildings by 2054.
- Decrease tropical deforestation to zero and double the rate of new tree plantings.
- Stop soil erosion. Apply “conservation tillage” techniques to cropland at 10 times the current usage. Encourage local, organic agriculture.
- Ramp up wind power. Add 3 million 1-megawatt windmills, 75 times the current capacity.
- Do a major push for solar power. Add 3,000 gigawatt-peak solar photovoltaic, 1,000 times current capacity.
- Increase efficiency of coal plants from an average of 32 percent efficiency to 60 percent, and shut down plants that don't meet the standard. No net new coal plants; for any new plants built, an equal number should be shut down.
- Replace 1,400 gigawatts of coal with natural gas, a four-fold increase in natural gas usage over current levels—a short-term step until zero-emissions renewable technologies can replace natural gas.
- Sequester CO2 at existing coal plants. Sequestration involves storing carbon dioxide underground, an unproven technology that may, nonetheless, be better than nothing.
- Develop zero-emissions vehicles, including plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles powered by renewable energy.
- Develop biomass as a short-term replacement for fossil fuel until better carbon-free technologies are developed, but only as long as biofuels are made from waste and can be made without displacing farmland and rainforests.
This framework can help us think big and fast enough to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. If we are to achieve each wedge by 2054, the next 10 years must see a major ramp-up. Anything less and we're kidding ourselves.
The good news is we can do this. We have the technologies and the know-how. Taking these actions opens the door to more jobs, energy security, real progress on the war against poverty, a cleaner environment, and a safer world.