Animal Emissions

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jul 15, 2010    •    1098 Views

As most of us know, cow burps add to global warming. According to the NY Times, animal methane emissions account for 10% of Australia’s contribution to greenhouse gasses. The solution? The kangaroo. Like cows, kangaroos are “foregut fermenters”. However, because their digestive system uses a different microbe, they produce harmless acetic acids instead of methane. If researchers could discover how to give cows the kangaroo microbe, then bovine emissions would be less harmful.

IPCC researchers predict that global warming will result in temperature increases that might average 4 degrees Celsius during the next century. As a result, warmer temperatures would diminish economic growth by 1% to 5%. In other words, the world economy will continue growing but just not as much. (You might want to look at a good debate on the topic at The New Republic.)

Enter Congress. Pending legislation includes proposals for electricity producers using qualifying fuels, creating cap and trade programs and carbon taxes, studying carbon capture, subsidizing auto makers’ efforts to create more fuel efficient cars, providing loans for clean energy projects, and nuclear power incentives. They have also suggested a big battery contest.

The Economic Lesson

Using CBA (cost/benefit analysis), economists would compare marginal (extra) cost and marginal (extra) benefit. Next, they would conclude that as long as the extra cost does not exceed the extra benefit that results, the policy should be implemented. Here though, I wonder whether it is possible to assess the marginal cost and marginal benefit of congressional initiatives. Even for animal emissions, because the entire Australian beef industry would be affected by diminishing cattle methane, can we accurately assess the impact?

And therein lies our dilemma. Will the current cost of diminishing greenhouse emissions which may be incalculable be worth a potentially indefinite future benefit?


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