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UC Irvine scientist:Climate change policies not working fast enough

Nearly a decade ago, Princeton climate researchers argued that a series of policy actions they called
Nearly a decade ago, Princeton climate researchers argued that a series of policy actions they called "wedges" would stabilize climate change. Now a team including a UC Irvine earth systems scientist says it's not enough to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions; instead, they argue, more action must aim towards eliminating the release of those pollutants.
UC Irvine/Steven J. Davis

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A scientist at UC Irvine is calling for greater urgency in the effort to control greenhouse gases.

In a study published in Environmental Research Letters, earth systems scientist Steven J. Davis and three co-authors said carbon emissions are growing faster than ever, prompting them to re-think a strategy on reversing climate change.

“After eight years of mostly delay, the action now required is significantly greater,” the paper concludes.

The only way to significantly slow global warming is through innovation in the field of energy production, they said. They call for new approaches that will support the development of carbon-free energy on a massive scale.

“Doing so would entail a fundamental and disruptive overhaul of the global energy system, as the global energy infrastructure is replaced with new infrastructure that provides equivalent amounts of energy but does not emit carbon dioxide,” they write.

That's in direct opposition to a theory of "wedges" popularized nearly a decade ago, when climate scientists began framing their thinking around the idea that global carbon emissions could be kept in check by a series of small steps.

The idea of “wedges” was introduced in an influential 2004 paper published in the journal Science, written by Princeton scientists Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow. Pacala and Socolow's original seven wedges included measures like making more fuel efficient cars that would ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a billion metric tons per year. The two men argued that this series of smaller steps could each cut a wedge of greenhouse gas from our planet’s burden; together, these wedges could stabilize or flatline carbon emissions.

UC Irvine's Davis collaborated with Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Long Cao of China’s Zhejiang University and Martin Hoffert of New York University. The group's new paper acknolwedges that the wedge approach has merit, but argues that it's insufficient to the task.

"We now know that holding emissions steady, difficult as it would be, is literally a half-measure – and one that we have yet to take," Davis said, in a release. 

Relying on simulations using data from the U.K. Met office, the authors argue that increasing carbon emissions have changed the game, requiring a fundamentally different approach.