Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Measuring the gap is an essential (but only a first) step toward steering a system

This morning, a new report was  released by the United Nations Environment Program. It represents about half a year of work by dozens of scientists, including me, who were asked by UNEP to assess the expected global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 if countries fulfill the pledges they made last year in Copenhagen.
It was a challenging task for reasons ranging from  lack of clarity about what exactly some pledges meant, to differing historical data sources, to differing projections of future emissions in different parts of the world, and, of course, due to the uncertainties inherent in our imperfect understanding of the climate itself. But given all of the challenges, I think the report does a good job of giving us a snapshot in time of the best scientific answer to a complex question: if we desire to limit temperature increase to 2°C over pre-industrial temperatures, do the Copenhagen Accord pledges go far enough? You can read the report here, if you want all the details, but the bottom line answer is: no, there's a gap between where we are headed and where we need to head. We filled about 60% of the gap, and have another 40% of the way to go.

As someone who has made a career of studying systems, I know that registering a gap is an essential step in self-regulating feedback. Whether it is the drop in blood sugar that sends an animal in search of food, or the increase in body temperature that leads to sweating, all self-regulating systems keep themselves in balance by measuring the gap between where some parameter is and where it needs to be, and reacting to the difference with corrective action.

It could be that the Emissions Gap report is, like the gap detected by a thermostat that turns on a furnace, a signal that spurs self-correcting, balancing action, in this case global resolve to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But, not every gap that can be detected by a system triggers self-corrective feedback. My mentor, the systems analyst, Donella Meadows, once said jokingly about the increase in standardized testing in schools: "trying to improve learning by increasing testing, is like trying to cure a fever by taking your temperature." Measuring a gap, without the determination to act on it, is unlikely to change a system.

The Emissions Gap report is, like a test, or a thermometer, an effort to measure the size of a gap, the amount of deviation of a system from healthy conditions. But the assessment of the gap alone can't bring the system into balance any more than a thermostat can warm a room if it is disconnected from the furnace.

A gap is an essential part of any self-corrective feedback loop, but only a part, a trigger. To create change, there must be something to act on the news of the gap.

So where might we find the rest of the self-corrective feedback loop that seems to be struggling to emerge as humanity grapples with it's overshoot of the planet's limits?

There's nowhere for it to lie, really, except in us. Individual human beings, from environment ministers to ordinary citizens. In the everyday personal choices we make, and more importantly, in our coming together to change the prices of energy, the rewards for efficiency, the design of cities, and the vision of a good life for an individual or a whole society. 

The good news of the emissions gap report is that the gap could be closed, brought to zero, given reasonable assumptions about technological progress and investment and the pace of change.

The hours of thinking, analysis and editing will seem well worth it, if the news of the Emissions Gap helps, in small ways or large ones, to trigger the the systemic self-corrective action we know is needed to keep the climate with in safe bounds.

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