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ISSUE 121 VOL 9 PUBLISHED 11/30/2007

Lecture links economics, climate

By Elizabeth Mitchell
Staff Writer

Friday, November 30, 2007

On Monday, Nov. 26, the St. Olaf Economics Department held the latest installment of its Economic Research Lecture Series with an address titled "Using Economics to Cut Greenhouse Gases." The speaker was Steven Taff, professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota. Before getting into his topic, Taff discussed the difference between economics and applied economics and explained the job of applied economists.

"We make economics make sense, and useful to people," he said. Rather than spending time learning what is taught in courses such as macroeconomics, Taff said. "We use economics to help people solve problems that are important to them ... such as social issues." Taff also clarified that "I am accepting their science," in regard to global warming. He stated that it is not his job to question the validity, but merely to use economics to solve the problem.

In the lecture, Taff focused on carbon dioxide, specifically its emission through the production of electrical power. The current breakdown of power production in the upper Midwest, he said, is as follows: 51 percent sub-bituminous coal, 4 percent bituminous coal, 6 percent lignite coal, 26 percent nuclear power, 1 percent natural gas power, 11 percent hydrological power and 1 percent wind power. Commenting on St. Olaf's own wind turbine, Taff said, "I know you've got a windmill ... but wind is nothing compared to today's power" in the big picture. Taff said that carbon dioxide is a problem because it goes into the atmosphere and stays for a 100 years, whereas other gases, such as sulfur dioxide, go into the atmosphere and fall back down to the ground.

"We're stuck with it, and forced into important, long term horizons & decisions made now will affect things years later." The current goal set by the government is to lower carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by the year 2055. Because of the long-term effects of the gas, however, Taff emphasized that decisions made now will have an impact on this goal. Equally important is the need to both continue meeting demand and to avoid raising prices whenever possible.

Taff argued that one of the biggest problems facing society is the replacement of old coal-burning power plants. Though the cheapest technology, coal-burning also releases the most carbon dioxide. "We've got some tension; the more we generate, the more we spend and the more carbon dioxide we generate," he said.

However, some spending is inevitable, since replacing the power plants in any way will cost money. The question Taff raised was which technology would be best to replace them. "We've got to keep the lights on, and we don't want to break the bank," he said, going back to the importance of both keeping up with demand and keeping costs down, viewed by many as having equal importance to lowering carbon dioxide emissions.

Taff explained that despite the long-term nature of these decisions, the decision forecast in economics changes all the time. "This year's decisions are shaped by last year's," he said.

In order to determine what might happen in the future, Taff used a program that can predict carbon dioxide emission levels from the present until the year 2055. The program, which can be set to consider such factors as keeping costs low and meeting demand, not only predicts the level of emissions, but also shows the breakdown of power production between different technologies. Taff used this in the lecture to first show the emissions levels if no restrictions are made on electrical power production. Although cost increases would be minimal, carbon dioxide emission would far exceed the required limits by 2055.

"Old dirty coal plants would be replaced with new dirty coal plants," Taff said. Next, Taff showed what would happen if such plants were banned and only other technology could be used. The result was that the next-cheapest technology, coal infusion, would be used instead, resulting in a larger price increase and similar carbon dioxide levels. His next suggestion was the use of a tax on coal production, so that it was legal as long as it was paid for. Although this prediction did meet emission requirements, Taff pointed out that it also resulted in a high increase of nuclear power use, which is seen as unsafe by many.

The main point Taff tried to make with these models, he said, was that there was no easy choice. "You're playing whack-a-mole here. ... One thing comes up, you fix that, and another thing comes up." One solution that most groups agree is best, he said, is conservation. "It's the cheapest way, but one we're never going to choose."

Taff finished by pointing out that there currently is no easy answer, merely many questions. "You have to ask, 'What do you prescribe?', 'Why do you think your scheme will work?', 'Who will be paying for it?', and finally, 'What if you're wrong?'" While he still believes the answer lies in the nation's production of electrical power, Taff focused on the magnitude of the issue and the plurality of solutions.

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