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Strategy Versus Evolution

Reaching President Obama’s CO2 emissions goal for 2050 will require strategic planning

Alex Pavlak

Rational Planning

2010-11MacroPavlakFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImagePeople without experience in building complex systems tend to take an evolutionary approach to planning. They start with what exists today, for example by looking for ways to reduce CO2 emissions via direct implementation of off-the-shelf technologies. Prevailing market forces drive decision making. An evolutionary energy program can lead to efficiencies such as a switch to natural gas, the smart grid, wind power and solar installations. Some of these interventions may even make a contribution to the long-term goal, but taking a systems view, some are nearly certain to be counterproductive.

From a strategic perspective, there are few feasible paths to achieving an 83-percent reduction by 2050. Based on what we know today, the President’s goal is realistic, but we must accept what a disciplined, strategic analysis tells us about how it can be reached.

Rational planners, starting with the strategic goal, conduct scenario analyses to identify feasible choices. Based on factual scenarios, policy leaders can then create a vision that becomes the basis for a comprehensive engineering plan. This plan becomes the basis for interim goals. Various governments have been seen to leapfrog the logic by declaring interim goals such as 30-percent renewable energy by 2020. These targets are capricious and not derived from a comprehensive engineering plan. The thinking seems to be that if we are going to achieve an 83-percent reduction in 40 years, we should be able to achieve 20 percent in 10 years. A useful metaphor is the task of building an 83-story building. A strategic planner designs the whole 83-story building, then builds the first 20 stories. An evolutionary approach builds the first 20 stories and worries about how to finish the building later.

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