Leveraging System Traps in the Global Energy System

In the global energy system, a trap that has often been overlooked or downplayed is the success to the successful trap. Meadows defines this system trap as one where the winners in a competition are systematically rewarded which provides them more opportunities to win again, creating a reinforcing feedback loop (Meadows 2008, 130). In the global energy system, this has occurred where developed nations have been able to profit and grow from the resource exploitation of energy minerals, like fossil fuels, yet developing nations are now unable to use those same methods to grow. Often these developing nations are also the most impacted by climate change impacts and resource depletion, leading to even more inequities between nations.

Leverage Points

A leverage point is needed that can help break free from this system trap. Meadows suggests leveling the playing field by removing advantages from the strongest and/or increasing advantages to the weakest with policies that generate rewards for success that do not create a new bias in the future (Meadows 2008, 130). One of the most important leverage points that can help achieve this correction would be through Meadows’ number five ranked leverage point: Rules-incentives, punishments, and restraints (Meadows 2008, 158). Unbeatable tax laws, like a global carbon tax, can help create a redistribution of the wealth that is currently being generated by the multitrillion dollar global fossil fuel industry to provide funding for poorer regions to develop cleaner solutions and pay for the climate change mitigation efforts that are required. Allowing this inequity to persist can create global social unrest if developing nations have no hope of survival from this system trap (Meadows 2008, 130).

Living in a World of Systems

Visualizing the global energy system from a system’s perspective allows many of these inequities to become apparent. Reinforcing feedback loops that do not have checks or balances can cause unsustainable behavior. A carbon tax would create an effective and efficient policy that allows market forces to incentivize fossil fuel producers to reduce carbon emissions like through carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies. A carbon tax would also generate funds that could be specifically directed to providing funding for clean energy and climate mitigation efforts for poverty-stricken areas. By developing feedback policies, like carbon taxes that fund clean energy and climate mitigation, the feedbacks in the system can be corrected towards more sustainable states for environmental pollution, as well as economic and social elements.

Principles of Pollution Control

Since removing all pollution is an unrealistic and unachievable goal, it is important to focus on solutions that can solve multiple problems in the short- and long-term (McKinney, et al. 2019, 381-382). A carbon tax that spurs CCS technology advancements and development not only helps reduce emissions from fossil fuel energy sources while distributing funds to clean energy development, but the improvement in CCS technology will also be able to be utilized for energy recaptured from solid waste to energy, wastewater treatment plants, and other renewable resources that would inevitably emit carbon or other greenhouse gasses. By implementing a carbon tax, CCS technology could be incentivized to reduce emissions from our current energy portfolio, redistribute funding to clean energy projects and climate mitigation for developing nations, and ensure there is technological advancement that allows impossible to fully decarbonize industries like solid waste and wastewater industries to further reduce their impact, even in a future where the energy grid is entirely renewable.


Even with great strides in material reduction, humans will always generate wastes in solid and liquid form. Energy can be reclaimed from those wastes before further disposal through a variety of renewable biogas and biomass systems. Do you think that there are certain policies other than a carbon tax that could help incentivize CCS technology to be advanced and developed for use in not just fossil fuel emissions, but also to help remove carbon emissions from waste to energy processes like from biogas, biomass, municipal solid waste, etc.?

Author: Logan Callen


McKinney, Michael L., Robert M. Schoch, Logan Yonavjak, and Grant A. Mincy. 2019. Environmental Science: Systems and Solutions. 6th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Meadows, Donella H. 2008. Thinking in Systems: a Primer. Edited by Diana Wright. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub.

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