Study: Policy Trumps Technological Change in Beating Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Traffic in NYC
Even with more efficient technology, a new study sees potential for increased emissions in the U.S.
Photo by Rob Brink via Flickr

A new study finds that policy changes, not technological advances, are necessary to stem the tide of rising greenhouse gas emissions. And the amount of climate-changing pollutants emitted could grow more quickly in the next 50 years than the last half-century, according to report authors Richard Eckaus of MIT and Ian Sue Wing of Boston University and MIT. “Technological change will not necessarily reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Energy taxes or a system of caps on energy use and trade in emissions permits are necessary,” Eckaus says.

The study, published in the November issue of Energy Policy, reports that the United States had a growth rate of 2.2 percent for energy use and emissions from 1958 to 1996, and a growth rate of 1.6 percent from 1980 to 1996. The authors predict accelerated growth in energy use and emissions between 2000 and 2050, based on information from the last half-century. “The rate of growth could be higher by a half percent or more, which becomes significant when compounded over 50 years,” according to Eckaus.

Currently, governments around the world are convening in Bali, Indonesia, to negotiate an international plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions once the Kyoto Protocol’s cap-and-trade system expires in 2012. Although some countries continue to advocate for voluntary emissions reductions, Eckaus says economic incentives are imperative. “There is no a priori reason to think technology has the potential for reducing energy use while meeting the tests of economics. It’s politically unappetizing in the U.S., but in Europe, gas costs six dollars a gallon. Make energy more expensive: people will use less of it,” he says.

Eckaus admits it is “counterintuitive” to challenge technology’s role in solving the emissions crisis. Nevertheless, “we found that, in spite of increasing energy prices, technological change has not been responsible for much reduction in energy use, and that it may have had the reverse effect,” Eckhaus notes.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.

A new study finds that policy changes, not technological advances, are necessary to stem the tide of rising greenhouse gas emissions.