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Study: US needs $7/gal gasoline to meet CO2 aims

Bob Tippee

Meeting goals set by the Obama administration for carbon dioxide emissions would require sharp increases in fuel prices and strict regulation, a new report says.

The finding states what has been obvious to knowledgeable observers all along. But sometimes the obvious needs to be stated.

To cut CO2 emissions by 14% below 2005 levels in 2020, as the Environmental Protection Agency proposes, might require gasoline prices above $7/gal in the target year.

So concludes a policy brief from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“A fundamental insight from this study is that if one wishes to reduce US CO2 emissions or net petroleum imports from the transportation sector during 2010-30, consumers cannot continue to drive more and more each year,” say researchers from Iowa State University, the Belfer Center, Tuft’s University, and Washington State’s Energy Policy Division.

The way to make consumers drive less is to make fuel prices painfully expensive, the researchers concluded after testing a range of policy scenarios with an Energy Information Administration forecasting model. The policies included an economy-wide CO2 tax, “strong” gasoline and diesel taxes, toughened vehicle-mileage standards, and aggressive performance-based tax credits for alternative motor vehicles.

One of the findings is that a $30-60/ton CO2 tax would cut emissions from power generation but “do little to curb emissions from cars, trucks, and the rest of the transportation sector.”

And fuel-efficiency standards apply only to new vehicles and lose effectiveness to the extent driving increases in response to reduced operating costs. They must be complemented by increased fuel taxes, the researchers say.

Without efficiency standards strict enough to encourage development of high-efficiency vehicles and fuel taxes high enough to discourage travel, CO2 emissions from transportation will continue to grow.

The study doesn’t address scientific questions about whether or how much cutting CO2 might influence global warming.

But it usefully clarifies the central proposition of climate-change politics: Although doing so might have little or no effect on global average temperature, people must pay much more than they do now to travel much less.

And activists wonder why Americans balk.

(Online Mar. 5, 2010; author’s e-mail:

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