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Five Questions with Harrison Fell

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Harrison Fell, an NC State energy economist, serves as interim director of the Center for Environmental and Resource Economic Policy.

As interim director of North Carolina State University’s Center for Environmental and Resource Economic Policy, Harrison Fell is passionate about the need for research into policies that could mitigate or reverse climate change.

Fell joined NC State’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics in 2016 as part of the Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program’s sustainable energy systems and policy. His research focuses on renewable energy deployment and integration, policy design elements for emissions regulation, and electricity market regulations.

Before coming to NC State, Harrison was an assistant professor at the Colorado School of Mines and a fellow at Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank specializing in environmental and natural resources policy analysis.

Fell has been part of CEnREP since he joined the university as an associate professor, and he became the center’s interim director in 2018.

Recently, Fell answered five questions about his research and about CEnREP and its role in climate change research and policy.

What is CEnREP?

The center was started in the 1990s under Kerry Smith, a big name in the field of environmental economics. Originally, the center included postdocs largely funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Laura Taylor, the next director, was here for a little over a decade. She made it more of a coalescing center with activities in environmental economics, energy economics and resource economics. She also emphasized communications for sharing the work of faculty and students and using that as a recruitment tool, as well.

CEnREP holds a few events: a seminar series that we do jointly with Duke University and RTI (a nonprofit research organization with headquarters in the Research Triangle Park), an internal seminar series that is more for campus students and faculty members, and Camp Resources, a premier event that we’ve had nearly every year for the last 25 years. Camp Resources is designed for early career faculty members and graduate students in environmental economics to hear about others’ research and to present their own work.

CEnREP’s faculty affiliates are mostly in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, but there are also affiliates in the College of Natural Resources and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Almost all of the affiliates have a formal economics background, and all do have an interest in environmental and resource policy. While we do interdisciplinary work, the goal has been to be where the economics thinking is going on with regards to environmental and resource problems.

Our affiliates focus on subjects ranging from climate change’s effect on recreation, energy use in developing countries and bioenergy policies to land-use changes, afforestation and deforestation, and water scarcity and water quality.

Much of the research seems to focus on climate change. Why?

A few reasons: One, obviously it’s the largest environmental challenge, perhaps even the largest challenge humanity faces, period. This is a question of human existence, and that motivates a lot of us.

The second part of it is that many of us are interested in policy analysis: Was this a good policy or not? Did it achieve its objectives in a cost-effective manner? How did it change the way people behave? How did it change the way industries align or businesses operate?

If you’re interested in figuring out effects of environmental policy, that leads you down the path of analyzing things related to climate change, because climate change is motivating a lot of policies.

What is the center learning about climate change and its implications for governmental policy?

Our work is not strictly coordinated; we’re a little bit different than other centers in that respect. Most of us are economists, so as opposed to a multi-disciplinary team bringing expertise from many angles to address one problem, we’re considering many different problems from somewhat similar angles and somewhat similar tools. We’re learning about forestry issues. We’re learning about water issues. We’re learning about recreation issues. We’re learning about energy issues as they pertain to climate and other environmental concerns.

As we come together, I think we learn a breadth of how climate change policy and climate change itself is affecting a variety of sectors that we care about globally and here in North Carolina.

What are the issues you are focused on in your own research?

I have a series of papers comparing different policies that we could use to mitigate the emissions that create climate change. This includes cap and trade (a system in which governments set a limit on the overall level of carbon pollution from industry and reduces that cap over time to reach a pollution target) and the design of carbon taxes.

More recently, my research has swung into policy effects and policy design issues related to renewable energies, since renewable energies clearly are one of the mitigation strategies. That’s grown into larger literature about the effects of that renewable energy on energy markets and environmental outcomes, which is all rooted in climate change, because climate change is a large motivator for why we subsidize our renewable energy.

An example of that is with a paper that I’ve done with Jeremiah Johnson, who’s in NC State’s Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering. We look at the environmental value of renewables in different places, including the value of it in reducing CO2 (see news release).  

From a policy standpoint, what are the biggest challenges getting in the way of mitigating or reversing climate change?

The biggest challenge with mitigating climate change is that CO2 is what environmental economists call a global stock pollutant — “global” in the sense that it doesn’t matter where the carbon is emitted; all of these emissions effectively contribute equally to the climate change problem. And “stock” in the sense that because the carbon remains in the atmosphere for so long, the climate change is driven by the accumulated (or stock) emissions over many, many years.

The global nature of the climate change problem means we need globally coordinated emission policies, which is obviously difficult to craft. The stock nature means we need to design long-lasting policies, and because we already have such a relatively high concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that aren’t going anywhere for a long time, we need to move fast.