Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Socolow’s Wedge vs. Archimedes’ Lever

On Platforms Versus Prescriptions

It had been a while since I first read Socolow and Pacala’s classic paper laying out the concept of “Stabilization Wedges” – the idea that we can implement several current technologies, each a wedge, to reduce carbon emissions to quasi-sustainable levels.

I didn’t feel comfortable with the word “wedge”, and wondered about its philosophical underpinnings. Why did they choose the word?

According to Wikipedia, “A wedge is… used to separate two objects… through the application of force.” (emphasis added.) Sounds like somewhat of a primitive method. (Little surprise that the wedge “has been in use as early as the Stone Age.” ;-) )

Of course the paper itself is great, in that it sets tangible goals to reduce carbon emissions, and emphasizes that the goals are technologically achievable. But the term ‘wedge’ seems to have been used just because the savings from emissions in the paper’s graph looked like wedges. No deep philosophical underpinning intended!

Except that such terms tend to take lives of their own – and in this case, the problem I have with it, is that it can take on a prescriptive connotation. Take these phrases (from the paper) for example:
  • “A wedge would be created if twice today’s quantity of coal-based electricity in 2054 were produced at 60% instead of 40% efficiency.”
  • “a wedge of nuclear electricity.. would require 700 GW of nuclear power with … about twice the nuclear capacity currently deployed.”
  • “a wedge from photovoltaic (PV) electricity would require 2000 GWp of installed capacity that displaces coal electricity in 2054.”
  • “An ethanol wedge would require 250 million hectares committed to high-yield plantations by 2054”
  • etc. etc.
Socolow did not necessarily intend for these goals to have policy implications – but don’t they just sound like they are calling us to use the brute application of regulatory force to implement each of the wedges?

That’s what makes me uncomfortable with the term.

Setting a goal is indeed very different from figuring out how to actually achieve it.

Imagine that, circa 1980, someone thought: “Wow – what if we had cheap computers linked up in a giant network so people could connect to each other, and find all sorts of information and buy things using this giant network. How cool would that be!”
Obviously, the goal would have been achieved less than two decades later with the internet. But that was not because some policy wonk decided to set about trying to create the end to end solution to achieve that goal. If someone had tried to prescribe such an impressive goal in a policy implementation, it would probably not have ended up with the internet… in fact, the French government tried to do exactly that, and ended up with the minitel – quite good for its time, but certainly with no long lasting legacy!

If we are going to use analogies, I much rather a lever, than a wedge… As per wikipedia: “Levers can be used to exert a large force over a small distance at one end by exerting only a small force over a greater distance at the other.” [emphasis added]

So if you want to achieve such a grand goal, I posit that is it much more effective to create the necessary levers – the basic infrastructure and the underlying ‘rules of the game’ that can unleash the power of markets, allowing thousands of individual entities to exert only a small force at great distances. To create the web, no one set out to create wedges like:
  • “We need 20 million computers networked together by 1995”,
  • “We need 3 million programmers creating web sites by 1997”,
  • “We need 100 terra bytes of data by 2004”, or
  • “We need x miles of fiber laid in the ground”.
Archimedes, the Greek mathematician first known to describe a lever, famously said: “Give me the place to stand, and I shall move the earth”. For the web, that place to stand – that platform – was created with standard protocols like HTTP, TCP and IP, which simply defined the ‘rules of the game’.

So what platform can we stand on to reduce carbon emissions? How can we define the rules of the game? And where on earth(!) is our lever?