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MIT Study: Rate of Growth of US GHG Emissions May Accelerate Despite Technology

US greenhouse gas emissions could grow more quickly in the next 50 years than in the previous half-century, even with technological advances and current energy-saving efforts, according to a new study by MIT's Richard Eckaus, the Ford International Professor of Economics, emeritus, and his co-author, Ian Sue Wing.

In their paper, “The Implications of the Historical Decline in US Energy Intensity for Long-Run CO2 Emission Projections," published in the November issue of Energy Policy, Eckaus and Wing portray the changing interplay among technology, energy use and CO2 emissions, based on a simulation of the US economy.

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.

—Richard Eckaus

The researchers studied the periods 1958 to 1996 and 1980 to 1996 and projected from 2000 to 2050. Based on their findings from the past 50 years and adjusted for a more realistic expectation for technological changes, they found that the rates of growth for energy use and emissions may accelerate from the historical rates of 2.2% and 1.6%.

US steelmaking illustrates how fossil fuel consumption can increase along with technological change: Steelmakers’ furnaces are now electrical, reducing coal use at the plant. But coal generates some of the electricity that powers the factory furnace, resulting in more CO2 emissions. Net savings in this case comes from the use of scrap steel instead of iron ore, not from new furnace technology, according to Eckaus.

A former consultant to the World Bank, Eckaus has been an advisor on economic policy to Egypt, India, Mexico and Portugal, among other countries; he advocates policies to control both energy use and CO2 emissions.

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.

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 US, but in Europe, gas costs six dollars a gallon. Make energy more expensive: People will use less of it.

—Richard Eckaus

In a new paper on a related topic, “Unemployment Effects of Climate Policy,” Eckaus and co-author Mustafa H. Babiker of Aramco model the negative effects on labor employment of policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions. They then propose economic policies to counteract these effects.

According to Eckaus and Babiker, emissions restrictions policies generate unemployment by reducing the demand in some industries for workers. The lowered output, in turn, would lead to reductions in the GNP by as much as 4% in the coming decades.

Climate change is a social and economic problem. If society wants to do something about it, it will have to bear the cost. It won’t be free. It’s an unprecedented social problem that requires a social response.

—Richard Eckaus

Eckaus, Babiker and Wing are affiliated with the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Climate Change.

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Only peak oil will work on that.


Yet another absurd paper making an absurd point. There is not need to reduce "energy use" in the future, only the generation of energy from environmentally harmful sources. Electric furnaces powered from renewables or nuclear reduce the use of coal.

And the "related paper" is also bogus. Technological change has always "displaced" workers." But more people are gainfully employeed today, than 50 years ago. So technological displacment does not need central command and control solutions offered by the paper, what we need are programs that actually foster technological change, such as hybrid cars running on domestic energy sources such as renewables and nuclear.

richard schumacher

Van is spot on. No society has ever developed by using less energy. Economic justice for the coming world of nine billion people requires quadrupling our energy use, but with environmentally sound sources.

Harvey D

Canada, with +30% in the last 10-12 years, is well on its way to make this forecast come true. At the current rate, Canada's GHG may reach +100% or much more by 2050.

We all know that using clean electricity can reduce pollutants. Electrification of most (if not all) ground transports + HVAC + manufacturing etc is the answer.

The problem is the current higher cost of clean electricity. Are we willing to pay 100% more for clean electricity produced from Sun, Wind, Geothermal, Waves, Hydro, and up-to-date nuclear plants?

One way to get around the problem would be a progressive carbon tax on dirty power plants, HVAC and manufacturing processes; high enough to make the cost of energy from dirty sources higher than from clean sources.

Most people will chose the lower cost energy sources regardless of the pollution created.

Rafael Seidl

@ Van , Richard Schumacher -

(a) I would take issue with the implication that nuclear power causes no environmental harm. Besides, for the foreseeable future at least, BEVs and PHEVs will remain niche products. So we will need motor fuels with a small ecological footprint as well.

(b) True renewables are very expensive and simply couldn't support 3 billion - never mind 9 - consuming energy at the rate and at the times of day that US consumers currently do. Technically, it might perhaps be possible. Economically, it would break the bank unless there is a very radical redefinition of "defense spending". Politically, that's not going to happen.

Ergo, total consumption has to come way down before renewables have any chance at all of making a serious dent in our dependency on fossil fuels. This doesn't necessarily mean giving up on a lot of luxuries; it merely means investing in energy efficiency. Transportation, space heating and A/C are good places to start.

Harvey D


If USA would have invested, (50% of the $1600 billions spent on useless oil wars in the last 6 years), to produce and distribute clean electricity, the bank would be in better shape.

Had the other 50% been invested on advanced batteries/ultra capacitors development and production, we would have a few million American built PHEVs and BEVs on the roads and the bank would be in much better shape.

If we dont wake up soon, we will be driving Asian built PHEVs and BEVs every day as we are looking at their HDTVs ++++ every night. We have to make better choices.


The solutions are here and now, they are just too costly. Solar is way too costly for me to buy so I continue to purchase power from the utilities company even though 39% of production is from coal. I don't see any tidal electric here by the water, even though I live right next to the gulf of Mexico. Solar panels are nowhere, even though I live in Sunny Florida. Wind turbines are nowhere either, and we have winds at night. I do see way more speed bumps on the roads now to curb speeding, and my property taxes have tripled, I guess that's where the money is going. Again, it's just too easy for govt to continue business as usual even though the solutions are here. We just need to use them.


Another problem is that proposed carbon schemes are too soft. Most of them won't start til around 2012 and they are full of exemptions, loopholes, giveaways and inflated offsets. The federal or state governments seem scared to actually restrict anything. Maybe they are waiting for hydrogen cars or clean coal to come along. As they say 'no pain no gain'.


@van, others -
you should look at this article more closely. It is about the possible reduction of energy intensity (a measure of production per unit of energy) not as you seem to think of energy use overall. The present framework of energy production and costs freeloads on the environment due to the fact that any costs there are not direct economic burdens to the companies/countries. The steelmaking is an example of how limitations imposed on a certain sector can be transfered in the present framework to the energy production sector, which presently is highly dependent on coal, maybe causing an overall increase in CO2 production and a decrease in intensity especially if recycling of scrap is not used.

It may create new jobs and put money into the right sectors of the economy but the reality is, it is going to cost, especially since we are coming from the position of freeloading on the environment to paying for the effects on it. This means that some sort of economic dislocation is expected and that usually means some sort of negaive effects on the economy.

This article is about possible decreasing energy intensity and the need for a policy to ensure that technological developement follows a strategy to reduce overall CO2 output and increase energy intensity, which present policies don't fully encompass.


Van and Richard

The statement that the energy consumption can only goes up is not only elusive but also dangerous and irresponsible since unsustainable, but also foster war and make us very vulnerable to any disruption that could eventually makes the all system collpases. Energy efficiency will be next big battle, in a world where energy will be expensive, energy efficiency will be the key of the competitivity. Better starts now by choice than later under the constraint of a shortage and the solution is very : CARBON TAX now

Stan Peterson

Van & Richard,

I agree. It is delightful that the authors actually recognized that the US steel industry is now based on recycled steel, melted in carbon arc furnaces. They then go on to say the only efficiency is making new steel from 95% old steel and not from 3% iron oxide ore.

Once again the authors are not fully wrong but short sighted. One of the things that electric furnaces, long used to make fine tool steels, is that the quality of steel output is, or can be much higher. Then low alloy, high strength steels so made, add their own efficiency to the devices that are made from them. Taking a half a ton of weight from each vehicle's weight by using less quantities of higher strength steel as a substitute, is totally unrecognized and accounted.

Fission Nukes have always been cheaper than any other sources for electric generation,ever since the late fifties. The proof is that they were the virtually unanimous choice of Utilities back in the sixties when oil was still $3 a barrel. It was only the dedicated legal stalling developed by we anti-Nuclear activists, that drove the utility economics crazy.

Now the legal stalling is no longer allowed as the Laws of the game have changed. That was a result of Energy Bills in 2001 and 2005 that didn't raise CAFÉ to stratospheric levels, before technologies were available, so they were dissed. They merely let the economics once again drive the conversion of US electricity production from 50% Coal and 19% nuclear today to 40+% better nuclear and 30% coal within the next decade. Thia will come with a massive substitution of the dirtiest, super-annuated and obsolescent coal plants that have been long postponed from retirement by the lack of a reasonable alternative, with the jokes that wind, wave, and sun technologies currently are.

This will occur within the next decade, with new Nukes already on order, with NRC licenses already filed, and under application. This doubling is already ordered more or much more could happen, but that would be based on projected rather than already committed new plants.

This last generation of fission Nukes already have storage capacity in the US for its waste, since Fusion will be the replacement as these new nuclear plants age and retire in 40-50 years.

This clean electricity will power the coming fleets of electric vehicles, making them even cleaner in a well to wheel analysis. The result effect will be in alleviating the useless GHG concerns; but more importantly raising efficiency, increasing substitutability, and removing the security and availability concerns of fossil energy.

Stan Peterson's Brainfarts

Renewables are for dirty hippies.


Stan, the big problem with recycling steel is that most of it comes from cars, and is contaminated with copper, and copper-contaminated steel just doesn't have the ductility required for automobile manufacturing. There are some high-strength low-alloy (HSLA) steels with copper, but they are largely experimental and never proven in automotive applications. If it were possible, the economics would make it happen, but that's not the case.

As for many other posters, I don't see what you're complaining about. The authors aren't saying that the GHG increase is inevitable, they're just saying that technology alone won't prevent it. They advocate aggressive taxes to provide economic incentives to curtail GHGs, and are Pigovian advocates. Why do you have a problem with that?

[q->t to email]


The authors are absolutely correct that technology alone, without a reinforcing tax on carbon or equivalent cap and trade policy, will not solve the problem of greenhouse gas emissions or energy security.

In addition, the carbon tax must be imposed quickly, and globally at a level that ensures that economically efficient mitigation measures are implemented on a timely basis. Given the stock of greenhouse gases building up in the atmosphere, and the slowing rate of ocean absorption, the longer we wait and the fewer countries or industries that participate in the carbon control regime, the higher the carbon tax must be over time on participating emitters.

The level of the carbon tax, at a point in time, should equal the expected incremental net present present value of damages likely to be caused by anthropogenic warming per kilogram of carbon emitted. Initially, we can guestimate the number from the climate simulation models, and than as more information becomes available refine the tax or cap and trade policy.

Any country that does not participate in the cap and trade program, or does not impose the carbon tax on its domestic consumption should be subject to a carbon tariff on its exports that reflects the carbon intensity of its export industries. This will prevent GHG taxes or cap and trade regimes from shifting global production and corporate profit to non-participating countries.

It all sounds very complicated, but the reality is that all of this is quite doable if we can overcome the opposition and influence of the new energy-military-industrial complex that is dedicated to maintaining our addiction to high carbon fuels.

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