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Carbon taxes, not technology, will cut emissions, says MIT professor

We're putting a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and technology may not solve it, says MIT professor. But Euro-style gas prices could.

There's no reason to think that technology will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. over the next 50 years, according to a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but regulations and higher prices might.

The technology versus taxes--it's the primary green tech debate of the day. Nearly everyone would like to see inventions emerge that can curb emissions and reduce dependence on fossil fuels in an economical fashion. Many, however, say it's not feasible, particularly in the near term. Count this study in that latter camp.

Richard Eckaus, Ford International professor emeritus of economics, and Ian Sue Wing conducted a study on energy consumption and emissions in the U.S. from 1958 to 1996 and again from 1980 to 1996. The study also then projected forward and made predictions about what might happen from 2000 to 2050.

Their conclusion? Technology doesn't necessarily reduce energy consumption. As a result, the growth for energy use and emissions may accelerate by a half percent or more from the historical rates of 2.2 percent and 1.6 percent, respectively, over the next 50 years, even when some technological advances occur. (Note: This is total energy use, not energy use and emissions per GDP.)

One example of this phenomenon can be seen in steelmaking. Steelmakers switched from coal-burning plants to electrical plants in the past. However, since coal gets burned in power plants to generate electricity, the benefits from that switch were arguably negligible or negative. Emissions were cut, but that's because manufacturers began to use more scrap steel and cut down on iron ore.

"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 said in a statement. "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 $6 a gallon. Make energy more expensive: People will use less of it."